Illaria Dana, Education Major
I am embarrassed to say that I know very little about refugees in Maine. When I began this article, I knew almost nothing. I had taken a course called History of American Education with Professor Marguerite MacDonald. We had studied about cases in Supreme Court that had limited the accessibility of education to non-white individuals in the United States. She gave anecdotal evidence about the difficulties that immigrants face in schools today and the services that are available in Maine to assist these people, including lectures that she gives about diversity in schools, the importance of knowing students, and how individuals’ backgrounds affect their conceptual and lingual development which, in turn, affect their performance in U.S. schools. I had never considered the idea that students from a community that herded animals would have strong spatial and navigational experiences that, in turn, would help them in school, regardless of their previous exposure to school or the English language.
I had only considered my privilege as a white woman and a native of the United States in sort of an abstract way. I knew that other people experienced hardships that were placed upon them by the society that rewarded me through no virtue of my own. What I did not know was the long history of oppression that people have experienced in schools, schools that were designed by John Dewey to be great equalizers, nor the difficulties that people have entering this country today. I became fascinated with the history of education as a way to understand my privilege and as the background of the difficulties that people face trying to immigrate to the United States and in building lives once here.
I met with a woman I know, Chloe Cekada, who works at the Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services office in Portland. She told me that she often directs inquiries to one of her coworkers, saying, “I usually ask Claudette to speak with inquirers. Sometimes she’s too tired, or doesn’t feel like answering questions, and then I will talk to people.” Ms. Cekada is a Maine native and iterated throughout our conversation the importance of speaking to people with firsthand experiences who are immigrants and refugees themselves.
How do immigrants enter the U.S.?
We began by talking about the word “immigrant”. Ms. Cekada explained to me that the word is blanketed term for many experiences that people have. She emphasized the importance of knowing how people enter this country. There are three ways that refugees immigrate to the U.S. The first is primary immigration in which people are settled in Maine, or their desired destination, directly from their country of origin having received refugee status and the care that comes with this status. The second way is called secondary immigration. She explained that someone may have received refugee status and been “resettled in D.C., or somewhere else in the U.S. There are many reasons why one would want to relocate to Maine. Perhaps they have family already established here, or they are not used to living in such a large city.”
The third way that people enter is as asylum seekers. Seeking asylum is a legal process, and this process is much easier if one can afford legal aid. Ms. Cekada said that people seeking asylum are “about 95 percent more likely to receive refugee status with this help.” People have to wait until the U.S. responds to their request to become asylum seekers, a kind of transitional process in which a person tries to become a legal immigrant due to violence or another form of displacement from their native country. She explained that after people begin seeking asylum, they may have to wait one to three years for an interview.
Asylum seekers are different from refugees, for they have usually entered the U.S. in a temporary manner, such as a student visa. Asylum seekers have to make a case to show that they cannot return to their country. They begin the legal process when they are already in the U.S.
A Brief History
Ms. Cekada also gave me a brief history of immigration in Maine. She said that the first large population to immigrate to Maine occurred 30 years ago, and these people were Vietnamese. She told me that Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services is one of 14 agencies that has a contract with the U.S. government to work with and provide services for refugees and immigrants. In Maine, the current policies on refugees receiving aid exist in part because Governor LePage missed a deadline to veto a set of 65 bills in July. On June 22 Maine’s House passed a bill that allowed asylum seekers to receive General Assistance, which includes food stamps, disability, and subsidized housing. LePage had intended to veto this bill, and 64 others, but he missed the deadline by ten days.
Ms. Cekada said that those who contributed to the bill had limited the scope to those who already had achieved status as refugees or asylum seekers, leaving a huge population uncovered. She had heard that the contributors had thought it would be “too hard” to pass a bill that gave all people assistance. She looked into my eyes as she said this, and I felt her humanity in full force. I felt that the people she spoke to everyday, living people, were struggling to survive and to build lives.
Behind the Scenes
She proceeded to discuss the work she does. She said that she had been part of a team that put on a workshop for a company of 300 people in Madison, Maine. She had observed that the most effective part of the workshop was when Qamar Bashir, the site manager of Maine’s Refugee and Immigration Services, spoke. She told me about many students whom she works with who attend SMCC and the challenges they face. It is her job to help them find the financial and language resources to assist them in higher education. She also said that many report experiencing microaggressions and gave the example of being in a high level science class and being looked at and treated as though one does not belong. The term “microaggression” has received much attention in the press; however, it is hard to make qualms with the term when real people are exhausted by their treatment in schools, specifically this community college.
Ms. Cekada explained that many volunteers who work with Maine Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services do not know how to enter the homes of the people they are trying to help. It is important to be cognizant that other people’s lives be rich in customs that demand respect. The only way to learn how to behave is to ask. And it is not the job of individuals to educate others about their race and customs. This can be exhausting. It is a privilege to live in a world that is culturally rich and a decision to let others into one’s private space.
Let us not forget that refugees and asylum seekers have been displaced due to violence, poverty, or disaster. This is not a question of artificial scarcity or the hateful arguments. This is about respect.
What’s Happening Here at SMCC?
My next step was to meet with Maggie Loeffelholz, a My Success Coach, to discuss the immigrant, refugee, and asylum seeking populations. She explained that My Success is a program that serves incoming freshman students who graduated from the Portland Public Schools system. To qualify for the program, students must need one or more development classes, usually in math or English. The students participate in a three week summer program and enroll in a FIGS class together in the fall.
Ms. Loeffelholz serves as an additional advisor to students in her cohort along with their academic advisors. She said that there were 33 students involved in this fall’s My Success program. Out of these students, 10 are asylum seekers. Asylum seekers, unlike permanent residents, cannot receive financial aid, so part of her work involves connecting students to scholarships. She said that she provides the same benefits for these students that students who are U.S. citizens receive. The students in My Success are members of the local community, having graduated from Portland schools, however, many have had different experiences entering this country.
What’s Happening Nationally, Locally?
On Thursday, November 19, the House of Representatives voted to enhance the screening process of people trying to immigrate to the U.S. as refugees from Syria. This decision is directly tied to the Paris attacks that occurred on Friday, November 13. President Obama has expressed his concern about the bill and the desire to veto it if it passes the Senate, a vote which will occur after Thanksgiving. According to “The New York Times”, President Obama said, “That somehow they [refugees from Syria] pose a more significant threat than all the tourists who pour into the United States every single day doesn’t jibe with reality.” He continued, stating, “Rather than shutting the doors to these desperate men, women and children who are risking their lives to escape death and torture in their homelands, we should work to utilize our immense resources and good intentions of our citizens to welcome them.”
Governor LePage has expressed his desire to prevent Syrian refugees from entering Maine. Will misguided fears prevent asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants from starting a new life, and will our consciences allow us to sit back while this happens? This is a pivotal time politically, and many lives are dependent on our attitudes and ability to exercise our concern for others.