When my family gathers for Thanksgiving, we will tell stories about loved ones who have passed on. One of my favorites is about the time my mother, then a young girl, picked flowers from a garden without permission. A policeman caught her in the act and chased after her.

Mom raced home to hide. My great-grandmother Mimi instantly sized up the situation and met the policeman at the door.

“I no speak English,” Mimi said over and over, playing up her Yiddish accent. He finally gave up.

Mimi and her husband, Reuben, emigrated from Lithuania in the late 1800s, fleeing the harsh conditions facing Jews. They lived at first in a New York City tenement, and Reuben worked as a peddler. He later went into the “needle trade” and built a prosperous business selling dresses.

Thanks to Maine Gov. Paul LePage, I’ve thought a lot recently about Mimi, Reuben and the rest of my immigrant ancestors.

I feel proud of them for braving the journey to a new country to make a better life. I admire their chutzpah – the way they did what it took to survive, even if it meant pretending that they didn’t speak English in order to protect a loved one. I know many Americans share that pride in their immigrant ancestors. So why do many disparage those who come here now for the very same reasons? Why do we allow politicians such as LePage to make false, racist statements about refugees and asylum seekers, referring to them as “illegal aliens” and claiming that they are just here for welfare benefits?


I feel fortunate to work with immigrants as an English as a Second Language teacher at Portland Adult Education. This fall, I have about 50 students from 17 countries: Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan.

My students face many struggles in their daily lives. But they impress me every week with their drive, their willingness to work hard and their belief in the ideals of the United States.

Let me tell you about Lumpadila Lulendo, a young man from Angola. He was in my advanced beginner class two years ago, not long after arriving in the U.S. as an asylum seeker.

Lulendo, as he calls himself, caught my eye immediately. On his nametag, he wrote in big, black letters “Number One.”

Lulendo had near-perfect attendance, and he kept me on my toes by asking excellent questions. He often seemed impatient with the other students. But I soon learned that what seemed like brash self-confidence was a deeply intelligent man pushing himself to the max.

Four months after I met him, Lulendo got his long-awaited federal work authorization. He began pounding the pavement right away.


Lulendo seemed increasingly dejected as the weeks passed and he was unable to find work. He admitted one night that he was so embarrassed by his limited English skills, he would show up at places that were hiring and leave without asking for an application.

A classroom volunteer and I both helped him practice job-hunting skills. A few weeks later, Lulendo found me before class with a big smile on his face. Idexx Laboratory had called him for an interview.

He used my name as a reference. “You better give me a good one, teacher!” he warned.

Lulendo kept that temporary job for several months. Last February, Idexx hired him for a permanent, full-time position as a production specialist. The company recently gave him an award for outstanding performance and achievement.

Lulendo continues to take adult education classes.

“I work hard everyday … trying to achieve my first goal, one or two years from now (of a high school diploma),” he told me. “After that then I can go to college.” I’ve made Lulendo promise to invite me to his graduation ceremony. I have no doubt that he will achieve that goal.

The Maine Republican Party has launched a 2016 referendum campaign to strip asylum seekers of General Assistance benefits. The party believes that whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment will help them win the referendum and also elect more Republican candidates.

I hope they’re wrong. I hope Maine people will think about Lulendo and all of the other immigrants who are contributing to our state. I hope we can somehow connect the dots between the way our own ancestors found a haven in America and the plight of today’s immigrants.

This Thanksgiving, I will say thanks for living in a country that provided shelter to my family, and continues to do so for others.

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