Diverse Cultures—Diverse Contributions:
A Look at Twenty-Five Immigrants’ Contributions to the State of Maine
review written by Melina Peterson | book written by Pat Nyhan
New Mainers includes twenty-five different immigrants’ stories of coming to America and eventually settling in Maine. Each immigrant has faced different challenges and hardships, adjusting to Maine life in their own way. The immigrants have each brought something special to America and have managed to make influential contributions to the fabric of Maine life as well as to American culture and society as a whole. Through her detailed recounts, Pat Nyhan successfully tells these twenty-five immigrants’ stories.
In New Mainers: Portraits of Our Immigrant Neighbors, Pat Nyhan explores twenty-five different immigrants’ stories of coming to America and eventually making Maine their home. Each making “remarkable contributions” to the state in different ways, these “new” Mainers overcome hardships—adjusting to American culture, facing racism and discrimination, and challenging themselves in education.1 In recent years, an influx of immigrants has settled in Maine, thus creating a rich culture in the state. Maine life would not be the same without these fine individuals, who, despite the challenges of coming to America, found their place in Maine and a multitude of ways to contribute and use their skills for good. While remaining one of the “whitest states in the country”, immigrants have made Maine far less “homogenous” than before.2 In an attempt to preserve their valuable life stories, the New Mainers recognizes each immigrant and the “brotherhoods and sisterhoods” they have formed as immigrants to Maine.3 Each fulfilling their dreams in unique ways, these twenty-five people contribute to the vitality and diversity of Maine.
A former journalist of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and the Maine Times, Pat Nyhan interviewed and collected information on the twenty-five immigrants before writing the text for the New Mainers. Having worked for Human Rights Watch on African issues as well as teaching English as a second language to immigrants, Nyhan does what she can to help people at home and abroad. Reza Jalali, a writer and community-organizer as well as a teacher and manager of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs at the University of Southern Maine, wrote the book’s forward, recounting his experiences as an immigrant from Iran. Coming to Portland as a “political refugee”, Jalali walked around “penniless, single and without a friend” while simply enjoying the atmosphere and generosity of the people in Maine.4 Although feeling unwelcome in a foreign land from time to time, Jalali soon learned to identify himself as a “member of [the] global community” rather than just another refugee.5 Jalali has come in contact with many of Maine’s immigrants through his cultural diversity workshops in which he uses his own experience as an immigrant from Iran to help other immigrants adjust to Maine life.6 Like Jalali, the twenty-five immigrants in New Mainers, possess their own stories, sharing the hardships they have faced as immigrants with readers. With a desire to expose America to the real challenges that immigrants to America face, Nyhan and Jalali as well as photographer Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest create a memorable book filled with the overlooked stories and contributions of twenty-five immigrants who “so enrich life in Maine”.7
Many immigrants come to America for educational opportunities and use these opportunities to eventually give back to the community. After receiving his M.B.A in 2000 from the All India Management Association, Amarpreet wanted to look beyond India for higher learning. Amarpreet and Hermeet Kohli, originally from New Delhi, India, chose to come to America in order for Amarpreet to earn his Ph.D. in the United States. Hermeet had already received her M.S.W from Delhi School of Social Work at Delhi University, and supported her husband’s choice to go to the U.S., as she was also eager to receive her doctorate abroad. With “more opportunities…in higher education” in the U.S., rather than the “focus” in undergraduate in India, the Kohlis felt it was the most prudent decision to go to America to pursue their education.8 Unable to “live in one place and put down roots”, the Kohlis were forced to live in separate states after receiving their doctorates.9 Both teaching at different universities and unable to find a joint offer, Hermeet lived in Chico, California while Amarpreet visited on weekends from Kansas, teaching at the University of Louisville. Finally the Kohlis received a joint job offer at the University of Southern Maine six years after coming to America and were able to set down roots in Maine and start their lives together. Providing the state with great educational expertise, the couple has brought their intelligence from India and shared it with countless students at the university level. Despite the “relative lack of diversity” on campus and the small minority of fellow Sikhs, Hermeet and Amarpreet are happy with their home in Maine.10
Sudan immigrant Mary Otto also found educational opportunities by coming to America despite being taught, “Girls never go to school,” when she was young.11 Faced with the disadvantage of her gender in Southern Sudan, Otto was given a limited education until her father could no longer afford to pay for her schooling. When the Sudan civil war started in 1983, Otto was taken to an Ifo Refugee Camp, and then a Kenyan camp from which she was sent to Portland, Maine to live as a refugee. Seeing this move as an opportunity for higher learning, Otto took advantage of her immigration to America, and received her GED from Portland Adult Education. Offered a job at Portland High School as a language facilitator, Otto now uses her immigrant experiences to help her underprivileged students acclimate to American culture as well as help them in the struggles they face with their conflicted beliefs. Called “mom” by her students, Otto has made great contributions to the classroom after being given the opportunity to receive an education in America.12
In addition to educational opportunities, the immigrants of Maine have made various cultural contributions. Fascinated by a “mixture of different sources of music” Shamou, an Iranian immigrant, chose to come to America to pursue a career in music.13 After experiencing culture shock from his sudden exposure to the fast-paced Manhattan life, Shamou spent all his free time contributing to various musical ensembles. He increased his musical exposure and talent, as he set off on a quest of self-discovery and success. In 1997, he was invited to provide music for the Bates Dance Festival, and finished a CD with his band Shodjah later that year. He composed music for the Portland Ballet as well as the Portland Stage Company’s Yemaya’s Belly and has made vast contributions to the cultural richness of America, making Maine his musical base. As an immigrant, he believes it is necessary for him to revisit Iran in order to “complete one of the circles in his life.”14 He hopes to reconnect with his Persian roots, as well as learn more about the music which has been the inspiration for his success in America. By sharing his talents and contributing to various forms of cultural entertainment, Shamou has left his mark in America.
Oscar Mokeme has contributed to Maine in a different way by providing it with a “symbol of its growing diversity.”15 As the founder and director of Portland’s Museum of African Culture, Mokeme hopes to share the richness of his African heritage with America. He works with spiritual healing, as well as talking to groups about the importance of community values. After studying African art at New Hampshire University and psychology in the Union Institute, he gathered a vast amount of knowledge about his heritage. Hoping to share this knowledge with the rest of America, Mokeme decided to open a museum as a way to give back to his second-home. At the museum he offers various programs, valuing the “importance of culture in helping understand diversity.”16 In order to spread his cultural knowledge to all of Maine, Oscar Mokeme has made great contributions as an immigrant by way of using his immigrant knowledge to help others understand diversity.
Like Mokeme, Laura Val—a Romanian immigrant—has used her identity as a “global nomad” to help “document the richness of human experiences and promote cultural awareness.”17 By developing a non-profit organization called Celebrating Human Creativity, Val hopes to contribute to Maine’s culture and provide it with greater cultural understanding. A graduate from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, her Romanian Jewish experiences have helped her receive a better understanding in her education. Noticing a lack of participation in American youth after her immigration, Val hoped that her cultural contributions would eventually incite more civil participation. Despite being originally presented with culture shock after coming to Maine, Val now feels welcomed by the state and contributes to it by providing “cross cultural understanding” to “inspire civil engagement.”18
Not only contributing to the culture, immigrants have also made great contributions to business. Van and Kim Luu are great examples of immigrants who have faced financial hardships yet still found a way to make their own business in a new country. Van Luu, Vietnamese immigrants, came to America after Congress passed the 1988 Homecoming Act to Vietnamese Amerasians, giving them priority status in immigrating to the U.S. Taking this opportunity as a way to start a new life, Kim and Van Luu both came separately, eventually starting a life together in America. He put his specialized carpentry and cabinetmaking to good use, opening a flooring company as a way to make money. The Luus have chosen to put their hard Vietnamese life “behind them” and instead focus “only on the good things America has to offer.”19 While the couple still misses Vietnam, the memories are painful and the two choose to simply appreciate the good life and business that American has provided them.
Suwanna Sanguantonkallaya is another immigrant entrepreneur who came to American with the goal of one day owning her own business. Having grown up in Thailand where they believe “only men can do everything”, Suwanna was not given the opportunity to start her own business.20 After immigrating to the U.S., Suwanna discovering her passion for cooking and when she found herself in Portland, Maine she decided to open up her own restaurant—Seng Thai Cuisine. The restaurant was met with great success until the tragedy of a fire destroyed it. Instead of allowing this challenge to discourage her, Suwanna instead remained “unfazed”, opening another restaurant called “Sengchai Thai Cuisine”.21 Through the popularity of her restaurant, Suwanna was able to share her authentic Thai Cuisine with America, and in 2005 she won a Businesswoman of the Year Award for her hard work. Suwanna Sanguantonkallaya’s hardships and eventual success act as an example of an immigrant’s ability to contribute to America despite personal hardship. Using her cooking talents to open a public restaurant, Suwanna is able to contribute to the cultural cuisine of Portland.
The “new Mainers” have also made astounding contributions to medical and social services in America. Rifat and Tasneem Zaidi constantly cross the border to provide medical assistance to Pakistan, while also using Rifat’s medical expertise to help Americans. Due to patients’ lack of money for his specialized orthopedic services, Rifat and his wife Tasneem saw immigrating to America as a way to find a place to sell his medical skills and find business. Despite 9/11 creating challenges in immigration, the couple was finally able to settle in Maine. The Zaidi’s then chose to travel back to Pakistan to provide medical relief for those who were injured in the 2005 Pakistan and Kashmir earthquake—thereby using their abilities both “in and out” of America, and providing the world society with great medical contributions. 22
As a social contributor, Rafael Galvez has used his law intelligence to become an immigration attorney in Maine and has come a long way from his childhood in Lima, by pursuing a good education. Going to law school at the University of Maine, Rafael chose to use his talents to help fellow immigrants in America. By defending immigrants, Galvez hopes to give back to the immigrant community he is a part of; because the social “welcome mat” for immigrants is very small, he believes his work is a way to support and help immigrants with limited options.23 With optimism that America’s immigration laws can change, Rafael Galvez fights every day for immigrants’ rights to stay in America and be reunited with their families.
In Pat Nyhan’s collection of immigrant stories, she highlights many contributions immigrants have made to the state of Maine. With the intent of revealing the true gifts immigrant’s have bestowed on American culture, Nyhan successfully exposes the true stories of immigration. The real immigration lies in personal stories, not in massive facts and dates. It is these stories which make up the immigrant culture in America. And it is this culture that makes up America as a whole. The author of this novel takes a passive role, instead giving way to the voice of the immigrants, as each person in this book has a different story—of hardships as well as success. The only flaw of the book is that some of the stories focus mainly on the immigrant’s life in America, while others center on their life before immigration. It would have been more effective had every story had equal focus on the before and after effects of immigration, as well as an attention to the immigrant’s journey to America and the hardships they faced along the way. Yet, as a whole, Nyhan’s book successfully overviews a wide range of immigrants, all sharing a common residence in Maine.
America would be nothing without its immigrants. Through contributions to America’s education, culture, business, and society, immigrants have helped build America to the great nation it is today. The Kohlis’ and Mary Otto’s stories in education seemed to stand out the most out of the twenty-five immigrants. At the same time, Shamou, Mokeme, and Val’s cultural contributions were all different from the other immigrants; each bring something special from their immigrant identity as a way to contribute to the intricate cultural “fabric of Maine life” in America.24 Both the Luu’s and Sanguantonkallaya’s business ventures reveal immigrants’ abilities to overcome all obstacles to create successful businesses in America. And finally, both the Zaidi’s and Galvez’s social contributions have left a lasting impression on America. It is these immigrant contributions in fields such as medicine and law, which truly reveal the importance of immigration to the success of America’s society as a whole.
While in the past immigrants may not have been able to receive many opportunities, immigrants to America today are able to make astounding contributions to the country. Although almost all the immigrants in the book “experienced racism to one degree or another” in Maine, most of the immigrants found that it did not impede their quality of life.25 Because many only had a single experience in discrimination, the rest of their lives were free from bigotry and prejudice, thus allowing them to pursue their dreams and ambitions. In the past, many immigrants may have received less cultural support and fewer educational opportunities as today. Due to these opportunities, new immigrants have been able to contribute to America like never before, as is shown in the stories of the New Mainers.
Overall, this anthology of immigrant stories is highly effective in revealing the true stories of immigration. Rather than a book packed with dates, the book is packed with stories behind the masses of immigrants. With a strong balance, the collection of stories vary—some showing refugees’ experiences in coming to America, while others showing well-off foreign citizens choosing to come to American for the vast opportunities available to them. In all, New Mainers: Portraits of Our Immigrant Neighbors truly is a portrait of immigrants that make up a large portion of American society today. It highlights the great accomplishments of immigrants who help create the strong diverse culture of the United States of America.
1. Nyhan, Pat. The New Mainers. Maine: Tillbury House, Publishers, 2009. xxiii.
2. Nyhan, Pat. xxiii.
3. Nyhan, Pat. xxi.
4. Nyhan, Pat. xvi.
5. Nyhan, Pat. xix.
6. Nyhan, Pat. 156.
7. Nyhan, Pat. (dedication)
8. Nyhan, Pat. 21.
9. Nyhan, Pat. 19.
10. Nyhan, Pat. 23.
11. Nyhan, Pat. 37.
12. Nyhan, Pat. 41.
13. Nyhan, Pat. 31.
14. Nyhan, Pat. 35.
15. Nyhan, Pat. 55.
16. Nyhan, Pat. 59.
17. Nyhan, Pat. 131.
18. Nyhan, Pat. 134.
19. Nyhan, Pat. 64.
20. Nyhan, Pat. 91.
21. Nyhan, Pat. 93.
22. Nyhan, Pat. 111.
23. Nyhan, Pat. 97.
24. Nyhan, Pat. xi
25. Nyhan, Pat. xxv.