SOUTH PORTLAND – When Chansatha Meas, a 27-year-old resident of Portland, came to this country from Cambodia five years ago, she brought with her many of the stereotypes engrained in her by her parents and other family members.

She said growing up in Cambodia, she was told to never trust Vietnamese people. But now, after half a decade in America, she has learned that the stereotypes she was told as a child are simply not true.

To help spread the message of the dangers of stereotyping, Meas and a group of her fellow students from Southern Maine Community College have formed Color of Community, a group of young adults from all over the world who are pushing to end hate, prejudice and stereotypes. Instead the group of about 20 people, who are all full-time students at the college, strives for a world of forgiveness, compassion and love.

“After I joined Color of Community, I have many friends from other countries my family taught me never to get close to because (people from there) are bad,” Meas said.

Truc Nguyen, 27, a member of the group who came here from Vietnam three years ago and currently lives in South Portland, said through Color of Community, the group’s members have been able to get past their differences to find commonalities.

“Most of us have been through hard times with different situations,” said Nguyen. “But when we get together we don’t think of that. We think these are my friends. These are my family.”

Since starting up in December 2009, group members have shared their personal journeys that brought them from their homelands to the United States in the hopes of teaching others about differences, challenges and the power of love.

“The message is there are so many things going on in the world. We are just a small group trying to make the world a better place to live in,” Nguyen said.

The group got its start in the Advanced Speaking and Listening course South Portland Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis teaches to immigrant and refugee students at Southern Maine Community College.

As a final assignment in the course students are required to present what is called their “sacred story,” an oral presentation in which they put that often emotional and confusing journey into words.

De Angelis has done the sacred stories project for the past few years, but December 2009 was the first time it was done in front of members of the public.

Students in the class, which include several members of Color of Community, soon discovered the power of sharing such private information with each other and the general public.

Portland resident Providence Mbabazi, who lost his father and two brothers in the Rwandan genocide, said the students begin the course as individuals from all over the world, but inevitably end up friends, considering each other family.

“We knew each other through class, but Color of Community was the beginning of us as a community,” he said, acknowledging his social circle would be a lot smaller, and less culturally diverse, without Color of Community.

De Angelis said it was the positive feedback from the public that motivated them to continue speaking about the experiences.

“That positive response from the audience is what really spurred them along,” said De Angelis, who had 10 members of the group read the invocation prayer at her inauguration as mayor in early December.

Since then, the group, which includes individuals who speak 20 different languages and practice Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Baha’i, has presented to groups from Waterville to Cape Elizabeth.

While they come from different areas of the world, sometimes warring nations, the members of Color of Community share the mission of reducing stereotypes, prejudice and hatred in the world, ideas that were, in some cases, engrained in their culture.

“It is important because we can share our experiences and teach them as a way to reduce violence and reduce stereotypes,” said Meas, whose parents survived the brutal Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia.

Mbabazi, who is originally from Rwanda but has been in this country for two years, said the group attempts to change people’s assumption that “certain types of people do certain types of things.”

Nguyen said after many of the group’s public appearances, they get letters of appreciation, often from children. Those letters, he said, gives him and others in the group even more motivation to continue speaking to the public and engaging them in discussion about peace and love, instead of war and hate.

Sharing their most personal experiences, either through the sacred stories presentation or through presentations for school or community groups, helps Color of Community members grow on a personal level and accept the past for what it was, said Bella Iteka, the newest member of the group.

“I have learned that this is one way to heal,” said Iteka, who is now an America citizen after coming to this country in 2001 from Burundi. “If you talk about it, you heal. If you never talk about the things that hurt you, you will stay that way.”

Mbabazi, 22, said the students the group speaks to also get to see history come alive through Color of Community stories.

De Angelis said she would like to book the group at more community events. Targeting adults, she said, remains a focus because that is where many of the children who the group has spoken to are getting their stereotypes. Speaking to school groups, De Angelis said, allows for students to be able to challenge the stereotypes their parents have taught them.

As De Angelis pointed out, they are not the only ones growing through this experience.

“It has added a richness to my life that is unexplainable,” De Angelis said. “When I am around them the energy is so intensively rich with their strength, their experiences, their language, their culture, their humanity and their willingness for forgiveness.”

This, De Angelis said, is not always typical of her students.

“I have watched hate, intolerance, stereotypes and bias all through my teaching career,” she said. “I have witnessed many students, including these young men and women, be ostracized and treated with hate by other students and adults.”

After hearing their stories, she said, she knows there is work that needs to be done in the community to change such hatred behavior.

“As I experience their model of forgiveness and their ability to teach by way of a sacred story that always says acceptance, forgiveness and love is what will stop war and hatred in the world, not weapons, intolerance and genocide, then I know there is work for me to do and I will do it for as long as I can breathe,” she said.

Ali Addan, a refugee from Somalia who lives in Portland, greets fourth-graders from Woodside Elementary School in Topsham after a presentation at the school last year by Color of Community, a South Portland-based group that promotes tolerance and acceptance in an effort to put an end to harmful stereotypes. (Courtesy photo)

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