It’s a bold statement that rings true when measured against history.

“There are no new immigration stories,” said Tilly Laskey, outreach curator at the Maine Historical Society.

Irish immigrants were barred from many jobs in the 1800s. Japanese families were placed in internment camps out West during World War II. Somali immigrants were told to stop moving to Lewiston by the city’s mayor in 2002.

While some immigrants have encountered greater challenges or successes than others, their stories reflect the shared experience of leaving familiar territory and venturing into the unknown in the hope of building a better life.

The society’s latest exhibit, “400 Years of New Mainers,” which opens Thursday, captures that common struggle at a time when immigration and the larger issue of human migration are fueling intense political rhetoric and international strife.

Stonecutters in Hallowell, many of them Italian immigrants, carve a statue in 1877 that was part of the National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Mass. Photo courtesy Maine Historical Society

Stonecutters in Hallowell, many of them Italian immigrants, carve a statue in 1877 that was part of the National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Mass. Photo courtesy Hubbard Free Library

On the campaign trail, presidential candidates are debating whether to build a wall on the Mexican border and a host of other immigration issues. In Congress, some politicians have moved to tighten immigration laws to prevent terrorists from entering the United States.


In Europe and the Middle East, countries are jostling to respond to an outpouring of more than 4 million Syrian war refugees since 2011. And in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage has tried to prevent asylum seekers from getting General Assistance and has said that Syrian refugees aren’t welcome here.

“We are confronted with stories of immigration every day, whether globally, nationally or here in Maine,” Laskey said. “There’s almost a 400-year history of immigration in Maine, going back to the first Mainers, who were the Wabanaki Indians.”


The exhibit, which runs through April 2, includes photographs, artifacts, crafts and other items representing a variety of ethnic groups that have come to Maine during the last four centuries, including immigrants from China, Armenia and Russia.

There’s an 1877 photo of stonecutters in Hallowell, many of them Italian immigrants, who were carving a massive statue that is part of the National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Policeman’s badge worn by Anthony Petropulos when he served on the Lewiston Police Force from 1918-1945.

Policeman’s badge worn by Anthony Petropulos when he served on the Lewiston Police Force from 1918-1945. Collections of the Maine Historical Society

There’s the uniform and badge worn by Anthony Petropulos, a Greek immigrant who was the first member of his ethnic group to work for the Lewiston Police Department, serving from 1918 to 1945. And there’s a photo, taken around 1920, of immigrant students at the Chapman School in Portland who learned English and U.S. history through “Americanization” classes.


“Back then, people often gave up their heritage to become part of what was called a melting pot,” Laskey said. “Today, people don’t have to melt in anymore. It’s more of a mosaic.”

The exhibit also includes contemporary photos by Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest from “New Mainers: Portraits of Our Immigrant Neighbors,” a 2009 book written by Pat Nyhan with a foreword by Reza Jalali, who helped Laskey organize the exhibit. Jalali and van Beest will be the featured speakers at a free opening reception at 5 p.m. Friday.

“Things really haven’t changed much,” said Jalali, who is coordinator of multicultural student affairs at the University of Southern Maine. Jalali is an Iranian Kurdish immigrant who came to the United States in 1985.

Hooria Majeed

Hooria Majeed Courtesy of Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest


Immigrants from the “New Mainers” book who are featured in the exhibit include Van and Kim Luu, a couple from Vietnam who have built a successful floor-refinishing business in southern Maine. There’s also Hooria Majeed, who fled Afghanistan and came to Maine with her three sons in 2002 after her husband, a successful artist, was slain by the Taliban because his work was considered un-Islamic.

“The whole project is meant to rehumanize the process of immigration,” said Jalali. “We thought we needed to present some positive stories and some understanding in contrast to the negative rhetoric that is so prevalent lately.”


Many new Mainers feel alienated and marginalized as they try to navigate a new culture without totally losing hold of their native culture, Jalali said. Those feelings often spring from and are amplified by bigotry and prejudice that they experience both personally and through the media.

Kim and Van Luu

Kim and Van Luu Courtesy of Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest

“My hope is that a lot of new Mainers will see the exhibit and understand that they’re part of a natural process that is part of the American narrative,” Jalali said. “That it helps new Mainers see themselves in a more positive light.”

Organizers also hope the exhibit speaks to Mainers whose families came here generations ago and dealt with similar bigotry and prejudice, like the French-Canadian immigrants who were chastised for speaking their native language and had to build their own churches and start credit unions because they weren’t welcomed at English-speaking institutions.

“It’s a reminder to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those immigrants that this happened to their ancestors, sometimes much worse,” Jalali said. “This magic we call America really was built by immigrants. Perhaps we should judge new Mainers based on their character and their contributions as individuals.”


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