“Dear Maine: The Trials and Tribulations of Maine’s 21st Century Immigrants” by Morgan Reilly, Reza Jalali and Lilit Danielyan will be released in September. Contributed / Islandport Press

As the executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, Reza Jalali’s focus is on helping New Mainers reach their civic, economic and social potential.

Teaming up Westbrook state Rep. Morgan Rielly and local photographer Lilit Danielyan, Jalali is now also putting a focus  on the contributions those refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants are making to the state.

In September, Islandport Press will release “Dear Maine: The Trials and Triumphs of Maine’s 21st Century Immigrants,” a book that features photos by Danielyan and 20 interviews compiled by Jalali and Rielly.

Jalali said his hope with the book is that it reinforces the fact that “refugees, immigrants and asylum-seekers bring so much to our community just being here.”

Rielly came up with the idea in 2015 as a student at Bowdoin College, shortly after finishing his book, “Neighborhood Heroes: Life Lessons from Maine’s Greatest Generation,” published by Down East Books.

“I started to think who else displayed the traits and strength I found with the greatest generation,” Rielly said.

What came to mind, Rielly said, was New Mainers.

He and Jalali, an Iranian Kurd who has been living in Maine since 1985, got to work.

“We tried to get as many experiences, backgrounds and locations from around the world as possible,” Rielly said.

Chanbopha Himm of Saco had read the 2009 book, “New Mainers: Portraits of Our Immigrant Neighbors,” for which Jalali had written the forward. She knew she wanted to be involved in the new book.

“That book has made a high impact on the immigrant community,” said Himm, who is profiled in “Dear Maine.”

Himm was born in a Thailand refugee camp to a Cambodian mother and Chinese father who were fleeing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The family settled in Massachusetts in 1983 when she was 3. Since arriving in Maine 20 years ago, Himm has been an advocate for immigrants and co-founded with Portland resident Marpheen Chan the Cambodian Community Association of Maine. Until recently she also served as the president and CEO of United Asian Communities, a group established in 2020 to unify and empower Asians through civic engagement and community service.

She hopes “Dear Maine” encourages and helps more immigrants to take on leadership roles and brings to light the growing diversity of Maine.

“It is important we get these stories written down somehow, somewhere because they matter,” Himm said.

Danielyan, a self-taught visual artist who lives in Portland, said capturing the perfect image of the people profiled in the book can be difficult “when you meet people only for a short period of time.” But, as an immigrant, she already had something in common with them upon meeting them.

“The most important thing is to get to know people and connect with them,” Danielyan said.

Danielyan’s black and white portraits “are not only beautiful images of people, but works of art in their own right,” said Dean Lunt, editor-in-chief of Islandport Press in Yarmouth. “As is the case with great photojournalism and documentary photography, her photos and her style help capture the essence of her subjects and serve to greatly enhance Morgan and Reza’s text.”

The experience has been a rewarding one for Danielyan, an Armenia native who grew up in Kazakhstan before immigrating to the United States in 2012.

“It was a wonderful learning opportunity and an enriching experience,” she said. “It felt so empowering.”

Rielly said he hopes those who pick up the book gain a new appreciation for the sacrifices these individuals made and the role they play in the community.

“By learning and hearing about other people’s experiences, it makes you grow and be a better person,” he said.

The book, Jalali said, “rehumanizes today’s immigrants as our neighbors” and highlights their contributions to the community.

“There is a common myth that immigrants are standing in welfare lines, what Morgan, Lilit and I are trying to do is change that story and invite readers to look at today’s immigrants with a different lens,” he said.

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