December 17, 2012

Portland immigrants spin tales into book

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Sanaa Abduljabbar, 40, who immigrated to Maine from Iraq two years ago, remembers a beautiful mountain valley in northern Iraq that she visited as a child.

click image to enlarge

A heavily thumbed French-English dictionary sits in front of Francine Kaneza Nkomje, who was getting in some last-minute studying for an upcoming test before her English class at Portland Adult Education.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Marie-Claire Umurerwa wrote an essay titled “I Believe in the Power of Words,” about how her son burned himself as a toddler.

Additional Photos Below

Mohamed Elshiekh, 43, from Egypt, recalls his ship passage across the Red Sea to visit Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest city in Islam.

Marie-Claire Umurerwa, 46, from Rwanda, recounts the worst day of her life, when her 18-month-old son was scalded after pulling a pan of hot water off a table.

Their stories are among the 17 in "We Write," the literary magazine published by Portland Adult Education.

The annual publication, now in its fourth edition, is a learning tool for six language arts classes at the school, located on Douglass Street and operated by the Portland School Department. The skill level of the students ranges from high school to college preparatory. Most of the students are immigrants.

Knowing that their work will be shared with others motivates the students to express themselves and also work hard to improve their storytelling skills, said Heather Wood, a teacher.

"Some are hesitant to share their work if it's very personal, but many are excited to do so because it's meaningful to them," she said.

The students read each other's work and choose their favorites for publication. On Thursday, the last day of the semester, the teachers handed out copies of the magazine. In some classes, students whose work was published read their essays out loud, to applause from the other students.

Copies of the magazine are on sale for $10 at the Portland Adult Education office at 57 Douglass St. and at Longfellow Books on Monument Square. XPress Copy is paying for half the cost of printing, and sales are expected to pay for the rest. The school published 250 copies.

Abduljabbar said she is proud that her English skills are now strong enough that her story was chosen for publication. She said it's critical that she understand English because her two young sons have a lot of questions about life in America, and she wants the answers to come from her, not strangers.

"I couldn't do anything without these courses," she said. "They improve me, for my life and my children. They give me a lot of power."

In her essay, she describes a "wonderful green land" in Iraq called Gali Zanta, a sunlit valley where her family often visited, especially in the spring and summer. "I wish I could be 11 years old and go back with my family to Gali Zanta again," she writes.

Elshiekh writes about visiting Mecca, saying that while he wrote his essay quickly, it took him several days to fix all the mistakes. He describes the mosque at Mecca with great enthusiasm and reverence, but not everything in Mecca gets the same treatment. "I am telling you, the traffic at prayer time was terrible," he writes.

Teachers say many of the students learn English quickly, since they already speak multiple languages. Umurerwa, who moved here from Rwanda last year, also speaks French, Russian and Kinyarwanda.

Her essay, "I Believe in the Power of Words," is among the most personal, telling the story of her son's scalding. He later fell into a coma for several weeks after the surgery because of an infection. It took years of therapy before he could speak normally.

"From this tragic experience, we learned together to get though these nightmares, and the tools were courage, coolness and patience," she writes. "I believe in the power of words for our parents, our teachers and our leaders. I believe that they can be a legacy, and that those words can guide us to make our ethical and moral choices in our mundane life."

Deb Rumery, a teacher, said her students' stories inspire her.

"It makes me feel so illiterate," she said.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at


Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Heather Wood, a teacher in the Portland Adult Education program, gathers with some of her students on the last day of a class for immigrants learning English.


Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)