AUGUSTA — Ban Shoukeir, who was born in Brooklyn a year after her parents immigrated to the United States from Lebanon, said her parents had hard lives and a hard time finding acceptance here because they were Muslims from the Middle East.

The Bangor High School junior said she’s had some scary moments too, even though she was born in this country. She said in 2012 her parents moved to Bangor and enrolled her in a Catholic school with less than 30 students. Her dark skin and Muslim faith made her stand out, which is not something many kids want to do in the seventh grade. Her first day at school, she said, another student who learned she was Muslim said Osama Bin Laden was Muslim, too.

She said she, and immigrants like her parents, just want to be accepted, like anyone else.

“I hope everyone understands it’s really scary,” Shoukeir said during a panel discussion featuring immigrant Maine high school students at the Maine Civil Rights Team Project Conference. “They came to the United States for a better life, not to steal people’s jobs.”

Shoukeir said she later moved on to Bangor High School, a much larger, though still not especially diverse, student body, where she made friends who made her feel she was, indeed, accepted.

“My friends helped me accept who I was,” she said. “They said, ‘You’re Muslim? That’s cool. You’re bilingual? That’s cool.”

The panel discussion was one of several aspects of the conference that brought more than 550 Maine high school and middle school students who participate in their school’s local civil rights teams to the Augusta Civic Center Monday.

Immigrant students on the panel said one of their largest obstacles to overcome was the language barrier. They credited their teachers, especially the ones teaching them English, for helping them adapt.

Ashish Nayan, a native of India who is now a senior at Lee Academy, in the northern Maine town of the same name, said his English as a Second Language teacher is like a second mother to him.

Mina Abdulaal, who is from Iraq, came to America when she was 11, and is now a sophomore at Biddeford High School, said it was hard to feel welcome at first, and she had only two friends in middle school, though she has more friends now that she is in high school.

She said she wanted people to understand immigrants “…have all been through a lot. We came here for a reason.”

Alastair Lawson, who moderated the presentation by immigrant students and who works for the Maine Youth Action Network in Portland, said it is important for students to hear the stories of their immigrant peers and to make connections with them.

“Bias and prejudice toward immigrants is real and it exists in our country, and it exists in Maine,” he said “We can learn so much from listening, from hearing … And the voices of immigrant youths should all be heard on the same platform.”

Other events at the conference included presentations and theater pieces by student groups from several Maine schools, and a keynote speech by Jerome Bennett of the Maine Youth Action Network.

Bennett described an incident that left an impression on him, on the Portland waterfront, when he came upon a seagull with its wing stuck in netting, unable to free itself from a pole or pillar.

He said some people took photographs, while others just watched. He was moved, eventually, to help out, and spent the next day following up with agencies and individuals to find someone who could help the bird.

“It reverberated with me, how easy it is to look, but not see,” Bennett said. “Every person, organization, direct service provider and agency needs to see. There is a certain empathy that comes with seeing, that we cannot derive from looking. When we see, we will make the extra effort to listen. We will make the extra effort to ask questions. We will make the extra effort to not only do our job well, but to do it a little differently, to best accommodate all groups of youth. When we see, we don’t forget.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj