To fully appreciate the new job Reza Jalali starts next week, you need to go back to the very beginning.

It was 1985. Jalali, a Kurdish refugee from Iran, had just arrived in Maine from India, where he’d gone to attend college and, with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent war with Iraq, he could no longer return home.

Now here he found himself, walking the streets of towns like Norway and Paris in rural western Maine, selling Electrolux vacuums.

Reza Jalali

Reza Jalali

“I was really good at it,” a beaming Jalali recalled in an interview Wednesday.

Maybe it was his guileless personality, his ever-friendly eyes, his self-effacing demeanor. Whatever it was, in a part of the world where foreigners are few and far between, Jalali would knock, the door would open and, voila, there he would be in a stranger’s living room, demonstrating the marvels of a top-of-the-line rug cleaner.

“They found me so strange – I mean my accent, my look,” Jalali recalled. “And so they would invite me inside. My manager loved it, because he said, ‘Anytime you get inside a house, even if you don’t sell a vacuum cleaner or (rug) shampoo, I’ll give you $25.’ ”

Come Monday, Jalali, now in his 60s, will take over as the executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center. After 35 years, the man who once found himself knocking on Maine’s door now will be holding it open for those who keep coming, wave after hopeful wave, in search of a better life.

It’s been a difficult year for the center, founded in 2017 to connect local immigrants not only with one another but also with the broader community. Alain Jean Claude Nahimana, its widely respected founder and executive director, died in May at age 49 from complications of diabetes. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of challenges.

Enter Jalali, who for the past 20 years has served as coordinator of the University of Southern Maine’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.

Just another face in the crowd when he arrived in Portland on Memorial Day three-plus decades ago – “Americans must really love their country,” he marveled at all the holiday flags – he’s now a widely respected elder for newcomers in need of a word of encouragement, a local connection, some sign that this nascent chapter in their lives just might work out after all.

“In a year that’s been very difficult for many reasons … having Reza join us has been a definite ray of light that we all needed,” said Mary Allen Lindemann, co-chair of the center’s board of directors.

His path has taken him from door-to-door peddler to caseworker for the city of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department, from a state mental health services manager to adjunct faculty member at USM and the Bangor Theological Seminary. He’s an author, holds two graduate degrees, and has served as a member of boards ranging from the United Way of Greater Portland and the Maine Humanities Council to Amnesty International USA.

In microcosm, Jalali’s journey reflects the essence of what immigration has meant, and still means, to this state. Decade after decade, nationality after nationality, people have found their way here because something about Maine beckoned – in Jalali’s case, it was a travel book of black-and-white photos a worker at the United Nations High Commission on Refugees gave him all those years ago in New Delhi to help choose a destination.

“All these gorgeous pictures, black-and-white, of the Maine coast,” he said, adding with a chortle, “No one told me the pictures were taken in the summertime!” (Thus his layers of sweaters when he arrived on the last weekend in May and, his English barely recognizable, wondered why Mainers were shedding their warm clothes while he was donning his.)

Much has changed since then, yet some things have not.

Many immigrants to Maine today are younger, more educated, more worldly, Jalali noted. Where once his only contact with his family back in Iran was the occasional telephone call that cost $2 a minute – he remembers telling his mother to try not to cry for so long on the phone because it was costing him too much money – he can now enter a URL on his laptop and watch live traffic at a busy intersection in Tehran.

Still, challenges remain. Just as we Americans have for generations toggled back and forth between resentment and acceptance of our latest arrivals, so now do some of us see refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants as the key to aging Maine’s future while others, spurred on the past four years by our outgoing president, seek to erect walls both literal and figurative between them and their dreams.

The Immigrant Welcome Center’s Immigrant Business Hub, a 3,960-square foot incubator offering space, equipment and support for immigrants bent on starting their own businesses, is among the best of what Greater Portland offers.

The numbers speak for themselves: According to New American Economy, which advocates for immigrants and their positive economic impact, southern Maine boasted just over 1,100 immigrant entrepreneurs in 2017. Statewide, in 2018, employees at immigrant-owned firms totaled just over 14,000.

“This is good for us because we need the skilled work force, and particularly young families … we need them,” Jalali said. “We hope that it will become a national model, that it will be a template for other communities to follow.”

Beyond the business hub, Jalali will oversee the welcome center’s digital language literacy program, its Citizenship Engagement Fund and, last but by no means least, its Your Vote Matters Campaign. Not to mention its link, in eight languages, to guidance on COVID-19, which has hit the immigrant community particularly hard these past 10 months.

Back in September, in its special bicentennial edition, Maine Magazine published a “Love Letter to Maine” from Jalali. The onetime vacuum salesman from far, far away had a few things he needed to get off his chest.

“We make an odd couple,” he observed. “I got here carrying the hot dry summers and the palm and fig trees in my memories, and you have long winters and tall pines. I came from the land of exotic spices, which have caused empires to rise and fall, and your seasonings are salt and pepper. Your celebrated food involves trapping a scary-looking insect relative, boiled while still alive and with its rock-hard shell intact, while my recipes demand days of preparation.”

He concluded, “I adore you, for you sheltered me, a displaced person from another world, added a chair, and taught me to be generous and independent. You made it possible for me to speak, teach, write, and publish – actions I was denied in my homeland. My children were born here. You let me laugh longer and cry deeper.”

Around the time Jalali first set foot here, the sign at Maine’s border proudly proclaimed “The Way Life Should Be.”

Today, perhaps more fittingly, it says, “Welcome Home.”


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