The two of us could hardly be more different. Ahmed is young, single, and Muslim, an immigrant and a budding businessman with dreams of opening Augusta’s first Iraqi restaurant. Chris is Jewish, married, and in his 40s, a historian and dad with three little kids and a minivan. But we share a love of Maine and a vision of America as an exceptional nation built by countless generations of immigrants from across the world.

We have joined together with others who share this vision to form the Capital Area New Mainers Project (CANMP), an all-volunteer organization that welcomes immigrants and refugees and helps them thrive in central Maine. CANMP is Maine at its best — regular folks working together to help new Mainers become productive parts of our community. Just as we roll up our sleeves to get someone out of snowbank, Mainers are doing what it takes to help immigrants get on their feet.

The volunteers involved with CANMP recognize that the immigrants who come to Maine are not a problem — they are a strength. They bring new ideas, new food, and new ways of living to this community. Many immigrants are well educated, have valuable skills, and are willing to work hard to achieve the American Dream. With an aging population and a stagnant economy, Augusta needs their youth, energy, and vitality.

Many immigrants, including Ahmed, hope to start their own businesses. Originally from Baghdad, he was a teenager when he began working as an interpreter for the American military in Iraq. Because he helped the Americans, terrorists targeted him and his family. After enduring many threats, he managed to get a special immigrant visa to come to the United States. He spent a year in New Hampshire before wising up and moving to Maine.

Ahmed’s family is part of a growing community of Iraqis in the capital area. In the past five years Augusta has emerged as a destination for many “secondary” migrants, immigrants who leave their initial relocation city in search of a safe, quiet, and relatively inexpensive place to start new lives.

About 50 immigrant families now live in and around Augusta, and dozens of immigrant children attend Farrington, Cony, and other local schools. Downtown Augusta features two Iraqi-run grocery stores, and another one just opened in Hallowell last month. While most immigrant families are Iraqi, in recent months refugees from Afghanistan and Syria also have moved into town.

Like French, Irish, Polish, and other immigrants before them, the newcomers who arrive in Augusta today seek what all Americans value — safety, freedom, and opportunity. They view America as a remarkable country that offers unparalleled opportunities to anyone who is willing to work hard. They are not asking for special favors or special treatment. They simply want “old Mainers” to see them as “new Mainers” who can and will make a wonderful contribution to our state.

According to the Pew Research Center, just about half of all Americans (likely more in Maine) do not know a single Muslim person. No wonder, then, that so many people fear Muslims and worry about their presence in a community. Even in Maine, there have been a number of disturbing incidents of discrimination. Ahmed himself was attacked by hate-spewing, anti-Muslim thugs in Bangor shortly after he arrived here, and just this month the Ku Klux Klan dropped frightening flyers around the Augusta neighborhood where many immigrant families live.

Despite these incidents, however, we are hopeful about the future of immigrants in the capital area. We believe in an America that welcomes immigrants who are “yearning to breathe free,” as the inscription on the Statue of Liberty says. We know that immigrants can become loyal, patriotic citizens who make America stronger and safer. We have seen Mainers from all walks of life join us in CANMP and other volunteer organizations to help immigrants thrive in our area.

We also are hopeful because we see that the younger generation is not scared of immigrants. Ahmed’s sister, who attends Cony High School, has not faced discrimination from her peers because they know her as a friend and a classmate, not a threat. These young people will help lead us to a better future.

We encourage you to follow their example by embracing immigrants in our community and joining CANMP’s efforts to make the capital area a thriving immigration hub, a place known for our welcoming attitude and can-do spirit.

Ahmed Al-Abbas lives in Augusta. Chris Myers Asch lives in Hallowell.

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