During this election season, it would be easy to believe that Americans hate immigrants. Every day, we hear about those who want to kick out Muslims, slam the door shut on Syrian refugees and build a wall along the Mexican border.

I had an experience this winter that revealed quite different attitudes among a cross-section of Mainers. They went out of their way to lend a helping hand to recent immigrants.

I teach English to more than 70 immigrants at Portland Adult Education. Most of my students worked in their home countries before war and other circumstances forced them to leave. They had jobs ranging from electrician and store clerk to doctor, accountant and factory owner.

Most now have to start all over again to attain professional credentials. As they improve their English and build up their job skills, they are cleaning hotel rooms, caring for elderly people at nursing homes and doing other low-paid work.

This winter, I gave students an assignment to interview a Mainer working in their chosen career. The students had to write a report about what they learned and give a presentation to the class.

My job was to find people in a wide variety of professions who would be willing to do the interviews. I was working on the matches at my dining room table one January morning when a middle-aged man came to clean my furnace.

I knew his first name was Jeff because it was embroidered on his work shirt. And he turned out to be a friendly sort.

Jeff Grant asked me if I worked at home. I explained that I was preparing for classes later in the day. He asked where I taught, and I told him.

Grant said he really feels for people who are forced to flee war-torn countries and leave loved ones behind. “I have two daughters, and, now, grandchildren,” he told me. “I couldn’t sleep at night if I knew my daughters might not be there in the morning.”

He grew up on an Air Force base with people from many different backgrounds. He said he admires immigrants for having the gumption to start over and take on the challenge of learning a new language.

Grant gets upset when he hears others put down immigrants for eating different food, or practicing a different religion.

“All religions, if you go back far enough, believe in the same thing,” he said.

I told Jeff Grant that one of my students wanted to interview someone working in the heating and air conditioning field. He readily agreed to do that, and gave me his home phone number. A student from the Democratic Republic of Congo called him several days later. Grant was as helpful as he could be.

Most people who I approached about the job interviews had similar reactions. Many seemed eager to interact with New Mainers.

Twenty people took time out of their workdays to meet with students in person and talk about their careers. Others answered detailed questions by email.

Time and time again, students returned from the interviews with big smiles on their faces. They felt proud of their ability to use their language skills to learn about a career that interests them. They made priceless professional contacts.

Best of all, they interacted with Mainers who were helpful and encouraging. That gave a big morale boost to people struggling to make their way in a foreign country.

All told, my students interviewed 33 people, including several teachers and nurses, a banker, an environmental engineer, a dentist, two social workers, a dental hygienist, a microbiologist, a music producer, an architect, a computer programmer, a food service manager, an equipment technician, a congressional staffer, an interior decorator and an animal refuge worker.

Mylan Stoddard, a Hannaford truck driver, and Robert Cyr, a Hannaford trucking supervisor, told students about careers in that field. They brought a truck with them to Portland Adult Education so that students could climb into the cab and sit at the wheel.

Cyr sent me an email a few days later. He wrote of the students, “They seem like grateful people looking for a way to be product(ive) individuals in a totally new world. I can’t imagine being in their place.”

“Very humbling and puts things in my life in a whole new perspective,” Cyr wrote. “I believe I’ve been the one who has been touched and blessed.”


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