To the airline passengers descending over Portland Harbor on Tuesday evening, it was a familiar late-summer scene: a string of lights strung around a yard on the water’s edge in South Portland, a circle of a dozen or so people sitting around a glowing fire pit, a grill, a food table …

A classic slice of Americana?

From a distance, yes. But up close, this wasn’t just another gathering of Mainers who look the same, talk the same and, by and large, see the world through the same lens.

This was Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, Ghana, Tunisia, all rolled into one. This was not how America sees the rest of the world but rather how the rest of the world see us.

“We have discussed marriage, relationships, dowries, saying ‘sorry,’ discipline, school types … all kinds of things,” Rosemarie De Angelis wrote to me in her invitational email. “The conversations are fascinating and enlightening and funny and sad. We have GREAT discussions.”

De Angelis, a former South Portland mayor and city councilor, began hosting the weekly get-togethers – dubbed “International Chats” by the group – last spring. They’re an outgrowth of her work as an adjunct faculty member at Southern Maine Community College, where she teaches intermediate English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“We used to do fire pits at the end of the semester when I’d have everybody over,” DeAngelis said. These days the group includes former students, their friends and relatives, and others De Angelis has befriended through her volunteer work with Maine’s immigrant community.

They’re all young adults. Some are seeking asylum, while others have achieved full U.S. citizenship. They all work, many juggling two or even three jobs. The ground rules are simple: Everyone must be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, and everyone must come with an open mind.

Some weeks, the group pulls a topic from a tin containing questions or ideas worthy of discussion. Other times they go with what’s already on everyone’s minds.

Over the course of three hours, Tuesday’s conversation ranged from the departure of the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994; from the separation of church and state in the United States to the murky line between education and indoctrination in many parts of the world; from the humanitarian aid that enables the United States to stand tall on the world stage to American military interventions that so often seem to go awry.

“I think for America, they need to be honest with what they are doing in other parts of the world,” said Belal Faizy, who worked in electronic fund transfers for the Department of Defense in his home city of Kabul before coming to the United States eight years ago. “They need to be honest about what they are doing and what they are saying. They say to the American people one thing and then on the other side of the world they are saying a different thing.”

On this night, with Afghanistan front and center in everyone’s thoughts, Faizy found himself in the spotlight.

He traveled back to Kabul in May with his wife and two children to visit with their families. The plan was for him to return after a few weeks – his job as a systems administrator for Baker Newman Noyes beckoned – and for his wife and kids to return on Sept. 2.

Then the Afghan government collapsed and Kabul, in the blink of an eye, fell to the Taliban. Faizy’s family made it out after two frantic nights at the airport there, followed by three more days of uncertainty in Qatar.

Now that they’re safely back home in South Portland, Faizy felt relieved on the one hand but melancholic on the other. When another member of the group suggested that things went so bad because the Afghan army cut and ran, he rebutted the notion, now so prevalent in America, that they were all cowards who could not – or would not – defend their own homeland.

The collapse in Afghanistan was far more political than military, Faizy said. While President Ashraf Ghani was quietly fleeing the country, the Afghan soldiers were left without ammunition, without leadership, without any choice but to surrender. Over the course of the war, Faizy noted, nearly 70,000 Afghan soldiers and police died fighting for their country.

“That’s unbelievable sacrifice,” he said. “Unbelievable sacrifice.”

Around the fire, the others listened in rapt attention. The conversation then expanded to other parts of the world: Why did the Americans project their military might onto places like Iraq and Afghanistan, while other flashpoints like Rwanda and the current civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region register nary a blip on America’s consciousness?

“America is transactional,” Sulemana Sumare, who came here from Ghana, told the group. “America will not come to your aid if you have nothing (from which) they can benefit.”

Theo, who came from Rwanda and asked that I use only his first name, agreed. Yet, he said, all the outside help in the world won’t solve a problem that originates deep within a nation’s own identity and culture.

“When my family got killed, it wasn’t the United States, it wasn’t France” who killed them, Theo said. “It was my neighbors, people I grew up playing with. If you just become an animal against your neighbor, it’s dangerous. Not any other country can really take care of that.”

I asked the group, “What would you like to see America stand for? What can America as a country bring to the rest of the world?”

To Amna Almubarak, whose home country of Iraq knows well the pitfalls of U.S. military intervention, it’s simple: Fewer weapons, more humanitarian aid. “Because (the United States) has so much power, I wish they could use it the right way,” she said.

Abdi Iftin, a journalist who grew up in Somalia and in 2018 published his widely praised memoir, “Call Me American,” said, “I think America has to learn from its past. We have to redo our image in the face of the world in a way we have not done in the last 20 years or so.”

Yordanos Gebremikael, who watches from afar as her home country of Ethiopia convulses with civil war, replied quietly, “What I want to see from the U.S. is work more on peacekeeping.”

The hour grew late. Some members of the group had to leave for work, while others had family obligations.

But before they departed, after De Angelis disappeared briefly into her kitchen and emerged with a small cake festooned with three burning candles, they sang “Happy Birthday” – eight times, each in a different language – to a young Rwandan man who goes by the name Vincent.

“You surprise me!” Vincent said with a broad smile after blowing out the candles. “Thank you for this surprise.”

It was, from a distance, just another birthday celebration. But as I bade farewell and walked to my car, I marveled at what I’d just witnessed and wished all of Maine could have seen and heard it, too.

On a warm August evening, as the procession of planes flew in from far and wide, this was what America looked like.


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