Close your eyes

Picture it. You awake in a camp, sleeping on a single cot beside your spouse on her cot, your children share a third cot. One child sleeping on the ground beside you has their hand on your leg just to remind them they’re not alone.

This isn’t a camp like a cabin, but more like a tent, which you would imagine the military uses as a makeshift base of operations when out in remote regions. You smell some food cooking, so you step out of the tent.

You’re in the mountains of Northern China, surrounded by people who don’t look like you, don’t talk like you, and are unsure of you. You see a line forming beside some uniformed cooks who are doling out rations to eager people humbly waiting to fill their plate. You rouse your family to stand in line too.

After breakfast, a man comes around and talks to you. You don’t understand what he says. He points to the right and following his finger you see five people all standing holding signs motioning for you to come over. But what for? You can’t read the signs. You can tell the signs are in three different languages, and you took two years of French in high school, so you can at least recognize that one language is French, but that’s only marginally helpful.

The man grabs your arm, encouraging you to go over. It’s not a forceful grab, but it is a grab, nevertheless. You reach for your family, and he slaps your hand away and points in your chest. You realize he means, only you.


What you don’t know is those signs are different volunteers. One is to help get your work history, one is to tell you about available jobs, one will go over your food plan, one will discuss housing and one will introduce you to your family counselor.

You tentatively go over, and one woman says, “Are you American?” “Yes,” you exclaim, so thankful that someone speaks your language. She tells you what is to happen. This one person who speaks your language is your lifeline, and for the moment, it feels like you might be OK.

Open your eyes.

This visioning exercise is how we opened the “Creating Employment Opportunities for New Mainers” discussion that the chamber and the town of Brunswick held at Flight Deck Brewing last Wednesday. Two dozen business leaders joined us outdoors under the pergola to hear a presentation and get some of their questions answered by our guest presenters Julia Trujillo (director of the Portland Office of Economic Opportunity) and Tarlan Ahmadov (state refugee coordinator). Tarlan and Julia have over 30 years of combined experience working with refugee and asylum seekers. They gave a comprehensive snapshot on the importance of immigration to Maine’s workforce, shared statistics on the Internationally Trained Talent in Maine and then answered questions from the attendees.

I asked a number of attendees for their takeaways to share them in today’s column. Here are some of those comments.

The visioning session was very effective, as Tarlan and Julia referred to it several times. For example, when someone asked about a potential English immersion program to get some local workers speaking better English quickly, Julia shifted her answer to the visioning session saying basically, “Would a Mandarin Chinese immersion class help you speak conversational Chinese in a few weeks?”


She followed that up with saying language classes are extremely helpful but learning a language takes time. Also using the language daily in low-stress environments is helpful too. Having someone who struggles with English in a call center, for instance, is not ideal until they speak the language better. However, putting the Internationally Trained Talent exclusively in positions where they don’t speak to others is detrimental to their language development too. Again, think back to the visioning exercise, wouldn’t this be the best way for you to learn in addition to classes?

Another piece that stuck out is the varied skills sets that aren’t being capitalized on. For example, if I woke up in Northern China, I wouldn’t be able to use my skill set as a chamber of commerce executive and newspaper columnist due to my language barrier. More than likely I’d be doing manual labor. Yet, does that maximize the decades of experience I have? It’s the same with our refugees and asylum seekers. We need to put them in the best position to succeed with their skill sets.

The history of refugees was another takeaway for some, in that, many of these displaced refugees and asylum seekers did not choose to leave their hometowns. They were forced out by climate, war, famine, or other traumatic events that can affect them years later. They’re trying to make the best of their situation and find a place they can live safely with their family and start a new chapter. That transition would be a lot for any of us to handle, let alone understanding a new culture. Thus, be more patient, be more understanding, and if they seem protective of their families or their belongings, try and understand why that might be.

Finally, Julia and Tarlan closed with an important message that inclusion is about belonging and creating a space where everyone feels they can express their thoughts and feelings. It’s about being open to someone with different experiences and sharing your experiences with them. People of different languages and cultures can co-exist without inclusion, but that is a lonely work culture to build. Lean into learning and adapting. Trust that by doing so, it will become a better workplace for all employees.

In closing, this was just the first conversation, and we plan to have many more. Topics suggested ranged from a meet-and-greet event to hiring process adjustments to practices to overcome language barriers. We’re just beginning this work, but this was a very good first step.

Cory King is the executive director of the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber.

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