An American flag stands alone by the window in a Sudanese house in Portland, Maine, 2021.
Salaheldin Abdalla, lives with his wife in Portland, Maine, 2021. Him and his wife never learned english, they spend most of their time at their home.
Suzan was fifteen when they arrived in Maine, a place she describes as “very cold.” Portland, Maine, 2018.
She had expected all of America to look like New York City. It has been twelve years, and Suzan is 27. She looks back on immigrating as a teenager, and says it was tough. She is very close with her mother. “We always make sure if anything is wrong, we tell one another. That’s how we can keep up with our traditions and where we came from, even though it’s new place, new people, new language.” Suzan lives at home with her parents and one of her sisters. They have a brother too, but he remains in Egypt. The family has tried, unsuccessfully, to bring him to Maine.
“Now that I’m here in Maine, I don’t think I’d be able to live in a different state. Maine is safe.” Most people have been friendly, but Suzan misses the communal lifestyle of Sudan. Of her neighbors here she says, “I don’t know their names. If I need anything, who am I going to call?” Suzan has always written her thoughts in the diary she has carried with her for the last decade. She safeguards it closely. Aside from protecting her privacy, she doesn’t want it to get damaged.
A comb sits in the bathroom of an immigrant family living in Portland, Maine, 2021.
Nahla Ghanwan and Khadil Alkinani, originally from Iraq sit in their home in Westbrook, Maine, 2018
“Community is really a big thing in Iraq. If you cook a meal, you’re gonna eat five different meals the same day because everybody is gonna knock your door to give you what he cooked.” In Westbrook, Maine, they introduced this tradition to their neighbors. They arrived in Maine eight years ago. Khalid jokes that they are still freshmen, but in a state that considers a person to be “from away” if their parents were born in Massachusetts, what they have achieved is remarkable. While we are talking, a neighbor stops by to borrow their minivan. Nahla and Khalid have created community.
It is winter and Nahla and Khalid are remembering the rose bushes in their garden in Iraq. It was delightful to sit there in the evenings and drink tea with friends. “It’s in my nose,” Khlalid says of the garden. We talk about how smell is a powerful link to our memories. Nahla most loved the scent of the orange trees; she used to make fresh orange juice and jam. Khalid remembers the smell of dust after rain. He takes a moment here. Nahla explains, “it’s difficult for him.” He continues, “there’s a special smell when its raining. It’s the smell of home.” I ask if they are home in Maine. Nahla says it is home for their kids. Khalid explains the duplicity of loving two homes, likening Iraq to his mother, and America, to his beautiful wife.
A group of kids bike around in Portland, Maine, 2021. About 33 percent of students in the Portland Public School speak a primary language other than English at home. Of the 60 spoken, the 10 most common are: Somali, Arabic, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Kirundi, Vietnamese, Khmer, Kinyarwanda and Acholi.
Fatima and her dad, originally from Iran, sit outside their home in Portland, Maine, 2021.
A Vietnamese market in Portland, Maine, 2021. I asked one of the workers how long has she been leaving in the Maine and she used her phone to translate what I was asking. Her answer was 20, but she still can’t speak or understand fluently English.
Portland, Maine, being one of the whitest states in the USA, has had an influx of African refugees in the last decade, Portland, Maine, 2021. In this image, the color red represents the vibrant and rich heritage of the refugee community, their connection to each other and the sea of normal behind. Yet together, the parts are still one in the same -all nature- with different fractures, colors and accents.
A girl stands alongside a basketball game in Portland, Maine, 2021.
The outside of most immigrants homes in Maine amalgamates to the surrounding community, Portland, Maine, 2018. However on the inside, it is decorated with artifacts that remind them of their culture and where they belong.
Food cans sit on a shelf in an Iraqi market in Portland, Maine, 2021.
Nahla Ghanwan (left) and Anaam Jabbar (right) both form Iraq, work for American Roots a sewing company in Portland, Maine, 2018. During their break they sit and talk about their memories.
The first thing Anaam Jabbar wants you to know about her is that she is an educated woman. She studied to be an agricultural engineer, but her degree isn’t recognized in America. Instead, Anaam sews for American Roots, a made and sourced in the USA fleece-wear factory, where she is head of the labor union. She’s vastly overqualified, but she is grateful to be a part of a small enterprise where, “they treat us like family. You feel human.”
Nahla used to teach. In Maine, she worked at an Arabic store and had a seasonal job at Macy’s. Then she met Ben and Whitney, owners of American Roots, a company that ethically manufactures fleece products in Maine. The company employs dozens of resettled refugees, mainly women.
I feel so lucky to have met these two incredible human beings.
A Sudanese man sits outside his home in Portland Maine, in pain, with his swollen feet, 2021
Low income houses in Downtown Portland, Maine, are mostly occupied by immigrants, 2021. This doesn’t mean that the rent is cheaper than any other house. They pay rent according on how much they earn, which in some cases ends up being higher than any other house in the neighborhood.
A group of teenagers stand outside a basketball tournament in Portland, Maine, 2021.
“There is only so much we can bring with us”Nahla Ghanwan says while she holds the gift beads that she brought from Iraq - a gift form her mother, Portland, Maine, 2021.
A seagull flys away on a working dock in downtown Portland, Maine, 2021.
A group of kids play outside their homes in Portland, Maine, 2021.
Namory Keita was born in 1982 in the village of Sangbarala, Guinea. At age seven he began drumming and became the lead drummer for his village in 2006. He now resides in Portland, Maine where he still drums, Portland, Maine 2021.
A left over watermelon sits outside John’s house, Portland, Maine, 2021. Originally from Uganda, he proudly shares that he planted the Maine native plants in his yard.
Ekhlas Ahmed a writer, a teacher, a human right activist resides now in Portland, Maine. She used to work as a teacher in the Westbrook school as the only black teacher in the whole school. Portland, Maine, 2021.
In 2016, I was sitting in the living of my new friends, in Portland, Maine. It was late, the party goers spirits were changing while more states were turned red. I witness my friends holding each other crying for the uncertain future her trans daughter will hold. I started fearing about my own future. What would happen if my status of being a resident was going to change, meaning that I had to leave my son and husband behind. I started fearing about my immigrants friends, some undocumented, some on asylum status and all the refugees on my community. At 3 am, by myself, with my laptop in bed, I watched with tears of uncertainty how Trump celebrated with his supporters and became the 45 president elected in the United States.
I left Argentina by choice, carrying an unresolved trauma, something that I felt related to the immigrant community living in Portland, Maine. The latino community in Maine it’s small, making it 1.8 percent of the population, data from the U.S. Census Bureau, putting me in the minority and harder to find a community to feel related to. After opening myself to the African and middle east community I found that cultural barriers were broken when we opened up and shared our own personal story.
The migrants have been arriving in Portland, Maine, by the dozens. The surge has opened a debate in the city, which needs new residents but also has filled its shelters. Portland has become a focal point for a sudden surge of migrants, who are seeking asylum.
In 2018, the Maine Art commission granted me money to create a travel exhibit that will help people born and raised in Maine understand why their city, Portland Maine, was rising with immigrants mainly from Africa and the Middle East. I did this creating a space where immigrants could share their stories and displaying objects that they brought from their home country.
In 2020 with the hope that my work once will become a document for research of the immigrant community in Maine, I went to the street hoping to take a step back and let the community speak. I was curious, and instead of asking questions, I let them guide me to the questions. I found a similarity in the way they were living. Once you step inside their homes, you are transported to a new continent, depending on the nationality. I learned about their stories and trauma, and the hope to belong, that’s where the name was born. When interviewing these individuals there is often a longing for their birthplace and culture overlaid by a humble acceptance of the daily struggles gifted by the security of a small city in Maine.
Belonging was born as a collaboration, of what they shared and my perception as an immigrant, seeking to highlight the often cloudy memories of trauma along with a culture left behind that each of my subjects grapples with while establishing a new sense of meaning inside a novel community. The project is a visual combination of the silent trauma immigrants and refugees face through both their reflections upon fleeing their cultural roots and the stark differences seen and felt inside an urban community within one of the most white states in the country - Maine.
Working together with organizations and individuals fighting for immigrants rights in Maine, I was able to collaborate with them to raise their voices. The intent of this project is to deepen the understanding of the passages of the refugee and immigrant communities, inviting us all to reflect upon how we are receiving these people, to question if we can empathetically understand what they’ve been through and to ask ourselves what we are doing to create equitable spaces for these individuals and groups to reveal their gifts within our society.