Ekhlas Ahmed, a refugee from Sudan, learned English as a student at Casco Bay High School and, after school, watching “The Ellen Degeneres Show” and repeating back how Ellen spoke. A decade later, Ahmed was working on a master’s degree in education at University of Southern Maine and leading her Casco Bay English students – immigrants themselves – in publishing a Celebrating Africa calendar. Ahmed mailed a copy to Degeneres with a letter of gratitude for being someone who, without even knowing it, had changed her life.

If you haven’t seen the 2017 clip from when this Maine teacher, who grew up being inspired by Degeneres, was a surprise guest on “Ellen,” it’s on YouTube.

Once that 2017 diversity calendar got a shoutout on national TV (and show sponsor Shutterfly paid off Ahmed’s student loans), the young teacher wanted to do even more to give back. Ahmed founded a nonprofit called Chance to Advance with the mission of helping other young refugees pursue higher education. And she teamed up with Tarlan Ahmadov, state refugee coordinator for Catholic Charities, on the creation, distribution and fundraising related to the 2020 Celebrating Families diversity calendar.

A year ago, the 2020 calendar launch party at Indigo Arts Alliance was a festive celebration with 250 guests of all ages enjoying an evening marked by diverse food, music and dancing.

A year and a pandemic later, the 2021 Celebrating Diversity in Maine calendar launch party was much quieter, as 35 people arrived at Aura in Portland in masks on Dec. 18 to lead a livestreamed fundraiser featuring Azerbaijani jazz pianist Emil Afrasiyab. Attendees included some of the new Mainers featured in the calendar and three recipients of Chance to Advance college scholarships.

“Those three students are all females who have plans to stay here in Maine, to go to school in Maine and give back to Maine communities,” Ahmed said, adding that the recipients were selected based on submitted essays.

“I wrote about my education back in the Congo,” said Onyx Emelo, a senior at Portland High School. “It was really different from here. I received so much more encouragement from teachers here than I did back in Congo.”

Emelo speaks three languages – English, Lingala and French – and plans to study criminal justice at Thomas College with aspirations of becoming an FBI agent.

Syrian immigrant Asriya Al Akash, from Deering High School, plans to attend University of Southern Maine and wants to be a dentist. And Simona Ickia Ngaullo from South Portland High School wants to be a pediatrician. Thanks to fundraising from last year’s calendar, each of these young women was presented with a $1,000 scholarship.

Each month in the 2021 calendar features a photo of a new Mainer, their story and information about their home country. They come from Asia, Africa, Europe and South America.

“We selected people who are moving Maine forward,” said Kathy Mockler, Catholic Charities communications manager.

Featured Mainers in attendance included South Portland City Councilor Deqa Dhalac (Somalia), neurologist and health advisor Nona Tsotseria (Republic of Georgia) and Kerem Durdag (Turkey), president of GWI and member of the Maine Angels investment group.

“We belong to the cultural tradition all around the planet of being able to survive and tell our stories,” Durdag said. “Our stories not just define us but define the next generation and the stories that hopefully they will create.”

Complementary calendars are sent to Maine schools and government leaders, with additional copies sold through the Chance to Advance website (chancetoadvanceme.org).

“The calendar project humanizes immigrants and new Mainers,” said keynote speaker Reza Jalili, executive director of Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center. “Tonight, we heard from the doers and the dreamers and the problem solvers – that’s what immigrants are.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer from Scarborough. She can be reached at [email protected]

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