AUGUSTA —When people come together over food, their reservations melt away.
So it was on Saturday, when about 50 people of different backgrounds came together at the Church at 209 to consider what a community center for Augusta’s growing immigrant population might look like.
“It was excellent,” Augusta Mayor David Rollins said. “It was the beginning of a conversation that will lead to a plan that will lead to a proposal for us to be ready with a proactive welcoming effort.”
In coming months, Rollins said, a number of immigrants or new Mainers are expected to settle in Maine, and some of them may come to Augusta.
And rather than react, Rollins said he and other city leaders want to be welcoming to the growing population of new Mainers.
Maine is a state whose population is aging, in part because of low birth rates and in part because many of its young adults seek jobs and opportunities out of state. At the same time, the state is experiencing a worker shortage, advertised by the many “help wanted” signs posted at businesses and organizations throughout central Maine.
“It’s about bringing people together face to face to exchange ideas,” Rollins said.
Saturday’s event was organized by Anna Ackerman, an Augusta native and graduate student at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and three of her classmates, Heba El-Hendi, Claire Wilson and Hania Mumtaz, who was not able to attend Saturday’s event. Ackerman is a graduate of Cony High School.
In the way of closely connected cities, Ackerman had heard through her mother that Rollins was interested in an effort to ensure that immigrants have the support they need.
As part of their studies, the students are looking at refugees in American towns through the Feinstein International Center, and they hope to give shape to what a community center might look like.
Those ideas, delivered in English, Arabic and Dari, a version of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, centered around having a place where people can meet, cook, share meals, and learn the skills they need to build a life in Maine. And they’d like a place to play soccer.
From this point, Ackerman said, the next step will be to figure out a process to make the community center happen, and that will probably include putting together a steering committee that can flesh out details.
“We want to work on this this summer in Augusta,” Ackerman said, “and identify the needs and the demographics of the immigrants who have moved here.”
That’s not necessarily a straightforward task, she said. Some of the immigrants who have settled here are secondary immigrants: They moved to the area from another U.S. city and may not be in touch with organizations like Catholic Charities, which provide initial help to immigrants.
Rollins said he hopes Ackerman and her colleagues can secure funding to come back to Augusta to develop the welcoming center concept.
“We’ll do everything we can to support this,” Rollins said, but it’s not going to be a burden on the city’s taxpayers.
“We can walk around in our own groups and fear to cross over to talk to someone else,” he said. “Or we can reach out and say, ‘Hey,’ and live peacefully together.”
Jessica Lowell — 621-5632