Kelly Clements, a Maine native who is the United Nations’ deputy high commissioner for refugees, speaks to students at the University of Southern Maine in Portland after giving a talk Friday about refugee issues and the U.N.’s role. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Zahra Abukar, a 20-year-old Somali refugee, wasn’t surprised when dozens of people showed up Friday at the University of Southern Maine to talk to a high-ranking United Nations official about refugees.

For the Portland High School senior, it was another example of the support Mainers give to refugees who arrive in the United States to rebuild their lives.

“They want to stand up and help refugees,” she said. “I always feel supported when people stand with us.”

Kelly Clements, the United Nations deputy high commissioner for refugees and a Maine native, was at USM’s Portland campus Friday afternoon for an informal conversation with students – including refugees now attending high school and college – and community members about the global refugee crisis and new Mainers’ experiences as refugees in Portland.

The event was hosted in collaboration with the Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services of Maine. It came a day after at least 200 people demonstrated on the Portland campus Thursday night in opposition to a lecture on immigration by state Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst, who is known for making divisive and polarizing statements. There were no protests during Clements’ visit Friday.

Asma Nour, front right, a sophomore at Portland High School who moved to the U.S. in December of 2015, listens as Kelly Clements, the U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees, speaks with students and other community members Friday at USM about the global refugee crisis and refugees’ experiences in Portland Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Reza Jalali, the university’s multicultural student affairs coordinator, said the meeting with Clements was an opportunity for students and the community to come together to talk about an important and especially timely topic. Refugees are coming to Maine from around the world, but there are doubts in the community about how many people should come here, he said.

Kelly Clements speaks with Zahra Abukar, a senior at Portland High School who came to the U.S. two years ago as a refugee from Somalia. Abukar said Mainers “want to stand up and help refugees.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“There’s tension between nationalists and us who believe America should continue to be an open society,” Jalali said. “We know the tension is not new, but at the same time the need has grown. Every day almost 40,000 people become displaced and yet more and more countries are rolling up the welcome mat.”

Through her work with the United Nations, Clements often hears stories from refugees about the challenges they face when they resettle in a new country. The stories she heard Friday from young refugees centered on the “welcoming, engaging and supportive” community they found in Maine, she said.

“It was very uplifting,” she said.

There currently are more than 65 million refugees worldwide, including 40 million people who are displaced within their own countries. Once a refugee leaves home, the average time he or she spends as a refugee is 26 years, Clements said.

“Unfortunately our work is not getting any easier as time goes on,” she said. “It truly is a global challenge we’re facing right now.”

Even as the number of refugees continues to grow, world leaders are putting more attention than ever on how to address the crisis, Clements said.

Aya Alkhdair, 21, a Sudanese refugee who attends USM, asks a question during Friday’s conversation with Kelly Clements. Alkhdair went to the U.N. in Geneva last year as a youth ambassador from the U.S. to talk about her experiences. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

During the community conversation Friday, Aya Alkhdair, a 21-year-old Sudanese refugee and USM student, asked Clements how the United Nations knows it is giving refugees the support they need. Clements said the U.N. is constantly talking to refugees to evaluate how they are being helped and the best way to deliver services and resources.

For Alkhdair, who has compiled data on refugee experiences and last year traveled to Geneva to talk about her experiences at a U.N. meeting, that kind of constant communication with refugees is essential. She said engaging the community in conversations about how to help refugees shouldn’t come only in response to political events like the presidential executive order that temporarily restricted refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries before being halted by the courts.

“We should have conversations like this regardless of what’s going on,” Alkhdair said.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

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