AUGUSTA — When Adil Karim lived in Baghdad, Iraq, he had 25 years of experience as a barber. When he came to Maine, however, learning English presented a barrier to his ability to cut hair – even that of his fellow Arabic speakers.

“I have an Arabic community here in Portland; they need a barber,” he said. “I don’t need to use English when I work.”

While Karim plans to serve those who speak Arabic, and despite his more than two decades of cutting hair, he couldn’t get the licensing needed to earn a living as a barber in Maine until he passed an exam. While the test is offered in multiple languages, Arabic is not yet one of them.

It took Karim multiple attempts to pass.

“The language is spoken different,” he said of English in comparison to his native language. “(The subject of a sentence) is sometimes in the middle, sometimes in the end. In Arabic, we write left to right. Everything is opposite.”

While Karim passed the exam, he and officials at the Augusta-based Aveda Institute of Maine are looking to shed light on a problem they say is increasing in Maine: Talented barbers and cosmetologists struggling to get state licenses because necessary tests aren’t offered in some languages.

Anthony Coco, owner of the Aveda Institute, said Karim is a talented barber.

Frank Coco is director of the Aveda Institute in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

“It’s not a matter of whether he can do it or not; his challenge is the language,” Coco said. “We’ve had lots of (students) from the Middle Eastern … and Asian countries. It’s definitely a challenge.”

Anthony’s brother Frank Coco, director of the Aveda Institute, said the test should be offered in every language because it is taken online and easily could be translated.

“In our day and age now, it should be opened up to every language that’s out there,” Frank Coco said. “(Students) come to me struggling.”

Barber students in Maine obtain licenses after passing practical and written tests administered after the completion of an 800-hour education program or a 1,600-hour apprenticeship, according to Jeri Betts, an administrator at the state’s Office of Professional and Occupational Regulation.

The test is created by the National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology, Betts said. According to the NIC website, tests are available in English, Korean, Vietnamese and Spanish. In Maine, the test is administered by D.L. Roope Administrations.

Betts said her department hears complaints “once in a while” from people who speak languages outside the four in which the test is available. As more immigrants come into the state, Betts hears more complaints about language barriers.

Anthony Coco said some students opt to travel to other states to take a more accommodating test – in places like Michigan, he said, testing centers allow students to have a dictionary to translate. But that has its drawbacks, especially financially. Anthony Coco said taking the test multiple times, which costs about $100 each time, could put a financial strain on the student, who may be out of a job and trying to settle in after coming to Maine.

“They are trying to financially reestablishment themselves in a new country,” Anthony Coco said. “A lot of them are being given some sort of support through the state of Maine, but they’re definitely on a budget.”

Mohammad Abdalnabi, a 19-year-old Egyptian immigrant living in Augusta, was fortunate to have spent time at Cony High School, giving him a chance to learn English that helped him pass the exam.

Mohammad Abdalnabi, 19 of Augusta, who recently graduated from Aveda Institute and passed the barber licensing exam, speaks on Friday at the institute in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

“I studied for two days,” he said. “I passed. I was so happy.”

Abdalnabi came to the United States in 2016 after growing up in Egypt and living in Syria and Jordan. He said he moved to Arizona and then to Augusta. Abdalnabi wanted to become a barber at a young age, he said, because it was a glamorous trade in his home nations; you got to work inside, out of the sun and not get your clothes dirty.

He said he learned how to cut hair before he came to the U.S. but couldn’t get a job here without a license.

Frank Coco said Abdalnabi was one of the best in his class and would frequently attend study groups with other Arabic-speaking students. He benefited from his time in high school, which some immigrant students may not have had.

“Mohammad, actually, said he wanted to do it normally,” Frank Coco said. “He passed; he didn’t need (accommodations).”

Abdalnabi, who graduated last month and now works at Millenium Kutz at 55 Cony St. in Augusta, said it would have been difficult to pass the test without his short period of schooling at Cony. He said the state should “probably” consider adding to the list of available languages.

Frank Coco hasn’t reached out to local legislators to make changes and has instead  suggested to his students that they reach out directly because they are the ones affected most. He said some lawmakers have come into the institute and identified the problem, but have hit dead ends.

State Sen. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, said he hadn’t heard about the problems related to barber licenses but added: “We must ensure that all Mainer’s have equal access to opportunities to advance their skills and prepare themselves to be a part of the workforce.”

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