AUGUSTA — When it came time to pick a name for the Augusta Multicultural Center, some organizers first thought they would call it an immigrant welcome center.

Immigrants involved in the effort objected, however, favoring a name that showed the center to be welcoming of everyone, regardless of heritage or national origin.

“We want people to know the center welcomes everyone no matter from where, or from any culture or religion,” said Hasan Al Khafaji, a founder of Capital Area New Mainers Project, the nonprofit organization which recently opened the Augusta Multicultural Center.

“The goal is to provide a place where community groups can meet and know each other, exchange cultures, build relationships and make new friends.”

While so far the 70 State St. space’s main attraction is an “iEnglish” digital learning lab at which immigrants can learn how to speak English via laptop computers, the center’s regular programs include a twice a week  class teaching Americans how to speak Arabic.

“It’s very much a two-way street. We don’t think all the learning happens on the immigrant side of the equation,” said Chris Myers Asch, executive director and a founder of Capital Area New Mainers Project. “We believe in integration. With a goal that both sides will be better for it. And that, to me, is a great, old American story.

People get refreshments under a row of hanging flags during the open house reception Sept. 18 at the new Augusta Multicultural Center at 70 State St., next to Lithgow Library, in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

“We’ve seen it in Augusta before, with the Franco-American community. And it’s as true for Syrian and Iraqi immigrants today as it was for French Canadians in the 19th century. We want to learn from each other and we want to build relationships, and this is a place for all that.”

Areej Shakir, an Augusta mother of two and Iraqi native in Augusta for three years now, who works at the center helping newer immigrants learn to speak English, said it can be difficult here for those who cannot speak English. So, she said, helping people learn English is a high priority for the Augusta Multicultural Center.

“It’s really hard for people (if they don’t speak English) so English is the first goal, so they can connect with other people here,” Shakir said.

Myers Asch said the iEnglish learning lab was developed by officials at the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center to help immigrants learn English, using specialized software installed on about a half dozen laptop computers which are available for use, free of charge, at the Augusta Multicultural Center.

Officials from the Portland organization came to an open house at the Augusta Multicultural Center last month and Myers Asch said both they and he were moved by the show of support from the Augusta community with roughly 100 people squeezing into the center’s rented space, among other entities’ space, at the State Street building, a former church owned by local developer Richard Parkhurst.

Shakir, too, said “it was so nice” to see so many people take an interest in the new multicultural center.

Shakir, in her work at the center, also oversees an Arabic conversation group for Americans, from noon to 1 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays. Many of the English-speaking Americans taking part in the group  are volunteers with Capital Area New Mainers Project who are seeking to learn enough Arabic so they can have conversations with immigrants as they help them integrate with the community.

Al Khafaji, of Augusta, who came to the United States from Iraq in 2015 with his family, and who works as an interpreter, said there are more than 50 refugee families in Augusta and Waterville. The new Mainers group helps them find housing and furnishings, educational programs, and hosts entertainment and cultural events.

In addition to the learning lab, one way immigrant families new to the area can get help at the center is by being connected with three or four volunteer mentors, who get to know the families, build relationships, and help mentor them on life in their new home.

Myers Asch said Shakir, who said she did not learn much English until she came to Maine, was one of the first immigrants to take part in Capital Area New Mainers Project’s family mentorship teams. Now, in addition to working at the Multicultural Center, she also volunteers as a mentor in the family mentorship program, coming full circle to help other immigrants through the same program that helped her.

“She’s flourished here,” Myers Asch said of Shakir. “And now she’s helping others, as a peer.”

The center is open Monday through Friday, generally opening just after 11 a.m. and remaining open into the afternoon, though their exact hours have not yet been established.

The center is funded by grant money from individual donors and foundations. Myers Asch said it receives no funding from the government.

People chat inside during the open house reception Sept. 18 at the new Augusta Multicultural Center at 70 State St., next to Lithgow Library, in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

A Teen Adventure Group, a group of nine local girls, five of them immigrants, four of them American, meet every other week at the center and, Myers Asch said, talk about what it means to be American, including from the perspectives of immigrants and refugees.

Plans for the center also include hosting meetings, speakers, classes, and other programs that highlight and celebrate the diverse cultures found in central Maine.

The center has a collection of bilingual children’s books so parents and their children can read together. It also has toys so kids can play while their parents work on their English skills.

 

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