AUGUSTA — The Capital Area New Mainers Project hosted a film screening and panel discussion Thursday night to show that bridging the gap between cultures is important to the future of the community.

The two films — “Maine Girls” and “From Away” — were made in Maine and highlight how cultural diversity is positive for the growth of the community.

More than 50 people were in attendance in the Cony High School auditorium.

The panel discussion was moderated by CANMP leader Chris Myers Asch and included Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett, Cony High English as a second language teacher Karina Escajeda, Augusta City Councilor Jennifer Day and Fatima Halawa, a Cony ninth-grader who came to the U.S. from Syria in 2016.

“In Syria, there’s a war, so we went from Syria to Turkey to Egypt, and we didn’t have a good life,” she said. “My dad decided it wasn’t a safe place to live, and then he got a phone call about going to the United States.

“We needed a safe place to live as a family,” she said.

Halawa said after leaving Arizona — which was really hot, she noted — her family came to Maine; and since she’s been here, she’s met a lot of friendly people who haven’t cared about what she looks like or sounds like.

“They are really nice, and they just want to know what’s inside you and what’s going on in your country and around the world,” Halawa said.

The panel members first told about some of their background. Harnett said he remembered hearing stories about the discrimination his ancestors faced when they came to America from Ireland.

“I remember hearing when my grandparents came to America from Ireland and would apply for jobs in New York, they’d see “INNA” on the door, which stood for “Irish Need Not Apply,” said Harnett, who recently announced a bid to represent District 83 in the Maine State House.

Escajeda said teaching English as an additional language is the best-kept secret in teaching. She said the students all want to learn English and are asking questions about the language in order to gain a practical knowledge about the language.

Immigration — both legal and illegal — has been in the news almost daily since Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016. Shortly after taking office, Trump signed an executive order banning immigration from seven Muslin-majority countries, and the battle over immigrants and refugees continues to be a polarizing subject. The shutdown of the federal government, which lasted more than three days and ended Monday, had the fight over immigration at its core. Trump’s signature campaign promise was to build a wall on the southern border of the United States and have Mexico pay for it. Now Congress is preparing to battle over protection for nearly 1 million DACA recipients, people who entered the country illegally as minors.

Day, who was in attendance at the event instead of being at the Augusta City Council meeting, said Augusta is a growing community, and it is important for the city and the state that the growth continues.

“We are so excited to have the population in Augusta growing,” Day said. “We want (new families) to be successful and we want the growth to be sustainable. We are also hoping winter isn’t scaring folks away.”

Harnett said he thinks the immigration debate has been hijacked in a way that is contrary to American values and what the country has always stood for.

“We should be working on saying (everyone) is welcome here and that they are making America a richer country and a better country,” Harnett said.

“Maine Girls” is a 28-minute film that follows 13 teenage girls at South Portland High School over an eight-week period as they get to know each other, learn about healthy eating, music and their cultures. The filmmakers re-visited the group after the 2016 presidential election to talk about the changes in their lives, school and community and the enduring effects of participating in the program. The girls in the film are from Congo, Vietnam, Jamaica, Somalia and Maine, and the film was directed by Yael Luttwak.

“From Away” is a film by Peter Ackerman about a family of 12 from Iraq who came to Maine via Arizona. The film features several members of the family speaking about living in Augusta, along with comments from Augusta Mayor David Rollins; Iraqi community leader Khalid Zamat; Father Frank Morin, of St. Michael Parish; and Augusta City Manager Bill Bridgeo.

“These families are working hard in the community,” Rollins said in the film.

Myers Asch said there is a lot of misinformation in the news media about immigrants. He asked Escajeda about what Maine-born Americans should know about immigrants and the immigrant experience, and she said people need to realize how isolated immigrants can feel.

“They are looking for opportunities to be normal people doing the same things we do every day,” Escajeda said. “Sometimes we just don’t see an authentic way to make that connection.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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