Invoice Nemitz: When immigrants like him come knocking, he’ll be ready at Maine’s door
To fully appreciate the new job Reza Jalali starts next week, you need to go back to the beginning.
It was 1985. Jalali, a Kurdish refugee from Iran, had just come to Maine from India, where he had attended college, and with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent war with Iraq, he could not return home.
Here he was now, walking the streets of cities like Norway and Paris in rural west Maine selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners.
“I was really good at it,” recalled a beaming Jalali in an interview on Wednesday.
Perhaps it was his innocent personality, his always friendly eyes, his selfless demeanor. Whatever it was, in a part of the world where foreigners are few, Jalali would knock, open the door and voila, there he would be in a stranger’s living room demonstrating the wonders of a top-of-the-line Carpet cleaner.
“They found me so strange – I mean my accent, my looks,” Jalali recalled. “And so they would invite me. My manager loved it because he said, “Every time you walk into a house, even if you don’t sell a vacuum cleaner or (carpet) shampoo, I’ll give you $ 25.” ”
Next Monday, Jalali, now in her sixties, will take over the management of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center. After 35 years, the man who once knocked on Maine’s door will now keep it open to those who come on the wave of hope in search of a better life.
It has been a difficult year for the center, founded in 2017, to connect local immigrants not only with one another but with the wider community as well. Alain Jean Claude Nahimana, its esteemed founder and CEO, died in May of complications from diabetes at the age of 49. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of challenges.
Enter Jalali who has been the Coordinator of the University of Southern Maine’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs for the past 20 years.
Just another face in the crowd when he arrived in Portland on Memorial Day more than three decades ago – “Americans really need to love their country,” marveled at all the holiday flags – he’s now a widely respected elder for newcomers having a word need encouragement, a local connection, some indication that this emerging chapter in their life might work after all.
“In one year it was very difficult for many reasons. Having Reza with us was a clear ray of light that we all needed,” said Mary Allen Lindemann, co-chair of the center’s board of directors.
His path led him from door-to-door trader to social worker for the Portland City Department of Health and Human Services, from state manager of mental health services to additional faculty member at USM and Bangor Theological Seminary. He is a writer, has two degrees, and has served on committees ranging from the United Way of Greater Portland to the Maine Humanities Council and Amnesty International USA.
In the microcosm, Jalali’s journey reflects the essence of what immigration means and still means to this state. Decade after decade, nationality after nationality, people have found their way here because something waved over Maine – in Jalali’s case it was a travel book with black and white photos that an employee of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees gave him years ago in New Delhi to help choose a destination.
“All those beautiful black and white pictures of the Maine coast,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “Nobody told me the pictures were taken in the summer!” (So when he arrived on the last weekend of May and his English barely recognizable, his sweater shifts wondered why Mainers took off their warm clothes while he put his on.)
Much has changed since then, but some things haven’t.
Many immigrants to Maine today are younger, more educated, and more secular, Jalali noted. Where once his only contact with his family in Iran was the casual phone call that cost $ 2 a minute – he remembers telling his mother to try not to cry on the phone for too long because it was too much for him Cost money – he can now enter a url on his laptop and watch the live traffic at a busy intersection in Tehran.
However, challenges remain. Just as we Americans have shifted back and forth between resentment and acceptance of our newcomers for generations, some of us see refugees, asylum seekers, and other immigrants as the key to aging Maine’s future, while others have spurred the past four years on trying our departing Presidents to literally and figuratively erect walls between them and their dreams.
The Immigrant Welcome Center’s Immigrant Business Hub, a 3,960 square foot incubator that offers space, equipment, and support for immigrants looking to start their own business, is one of Greater Portland’s best offerings.
The numbers speak for themselves: According to the New American Economy, which advocates for immigrants and their positive economic impact, there were just over 1,100 immigrant entrepreneurs in South Maine in 2017. In 2018, employees at companies with a migrant background employed just over 14,000 nationwide.
“This is good for us because we need skilled workers, and especially young families … we need them,” Jalali said. “We hope that it will become a national model, that it will be a template for other communities.”
Beyond the business center, Jalali will oversee the Welcome Center’s digital language skills program, the Citizenship Engagement Fund and, last but not least, the Your Vote Matters Campaign. Not to mention its eight-language link to guidance on COVID-19, which has hit the immigrant community particularly hard in the past 10 months.
Back in September, Maine Magazine published a “Love Letter to Maine” from Jalali in its bicentenary special issue. The one-time vacuum vendor from far away had a few things he needed to get off his chest.
“We’re making a strange couple,” he remarked. “I came here and have the hot, dry summers and the palm and fig trees in my memories, and you have long winters and tall pines. I came from the land of exotic spices that made empires rise and fall, and your spices are salt and pepper. Their famous food consists of catching a scary-looking insect relative that is cooked while still alive and has its rock-hard shell intact, while my recipes take days to prepare. “
He concluded, “I adore you for you have protected me, a displaced person from another world, added a chair and taught me to be generous and independent. You have enabled me to speak, teach, write and publish – actions that I have been denied in my homeland. My children were born here. You make me laugh longer and cry deeper. “
Around the time Jalali first set foot here, the sign on Maine’s border proudly proclaimed “The Way Life Should Be”.
Today, perhaps more appropriately, it says: “Welcome home.”
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