Living in the age of displacement, the world’s uprooted – the stateless and rightless victims of endless wars and globalization – see migration as their only chance to survive. But in today’s divided America, a nation flirting with nativism, immigration remains contentious. Never mind that – to borrow a Maine term – most Americans are “from away.” That includes most of us in Maine – unless you spoke Algonquian and could trace your ancestry to the Penobscot Nation, or other tribes that were present when the white European colonists arrived.

To understand today’s immigrants is to unlearn some of the myths about them. Education that could lead to respectful and meaningful conversation would help. “Making Migration Visible,” a statewide collaborative project with some 70 community partners, aims to raise public awareness and facilitate community dialogues to re-humanize Maine’s immigrants, new and old.

Though I’ve lived in Maine for three decades, I’m still reminded of being from away. My looks, accent and the name give me away. We’re all immigrants, or descendants of the same. Reading Maine’s history, we see peopling of this region by early Europeans. “Migrants” and “immigrants” in today’s vocabulary, they started by unpeopling the region, emptying it of its original population.

By the 17th century, English settlements were built in parts of Maine. French and English economic immigrants – those arriving for better lives – came soon. They were America’s first undocumented immigrants: dreamers lured by the unlimited possibilities.

Not all came by choice. In early Colonial times, African people were brought to Maine as slaves or servants.

When the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 caused the displacement of millions in Ireland, many came to Maine to work in construction, in mills and on the waterfront. Single Irish women came to work as domestic help. Also in the 19th century, when life turned difficult in Quebec and New Brunswick at the same time that industrial jobs opened in mill towns in Maine, immigrants came from Canada. Italians came to work in granite quarries. Swedish immigrants were recruited to farm and settle in Aroostook County in the late 19th century. They received tax-free land to establish their farms.


Chinese immigrants came by the 1920s. The Greeks, the Armenians and the Jews came, escaping persecution and violence in Europe. Later, Russian exiles established a community in Richmond. Others followed and continue to follow. You could say this is the American, and Maine, narrative: stories of survival, struggles and rebuilding lives, with mostly happy endings.

No matter why, when and how all of us “from away” arrived, whether we came by air, walked across the borders from Mexico or Canada, crossed the ocean in a passenger ship or made it here in leaky boats, seeking asylum once here, we share a love for America. Our journeys are a testimony to human resilience, courage and wanting to be free. I should know: While I was a boy in Kurdistan, I recall clutching a Pepsi, then a symbol of America, and gazing dreamily at posters of Hollywood beauties like Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor! Don’t judge me. I was 11 and in love with America!

Still, because of propaganda and a rise in nativism, accompanied by a ruthless campaign of lies and fear, immigration is seen by some as a threat. Politicians who are ignorant of how this nation came to be, dismissive of the U.S. Constitution and deaf to the richness of American multiculturalism, have painted a picture of immigrants as enemies.

The numbers tell a more positive story: Today’s immigrants are more likely than the average Mainer to have advanced degrees – the kind of workforce Maine needs. Many start businesses that create jobs for Mainers.

Our shared humanity, the varied stories of those “from away” could connect and unite us as Mainers. In weeks and months to come, “Making Migration Visible” and Museum L-A’s “Becoming American” plan to showcase the untold stories of immigration to this land and how their collective sacrifices made the magic of America possible. These are our collective stories, the sacred narratives of those “from away” making it in Maine.

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