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January 25, 2016

Immigrants key 'to what Maine needs to solve its demographic challenges'

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Tae Chong of CEI talks with Babylon Restaurant co-owner Nagham Rikan in the restaurant on Forest Avenue in Portland.
Photo / Tim Greenway
Reza Jalali, coordinator of multicultural student affairs, at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus, says New Mainers are contributing to the state’s economy.

The drive west along Forest Avenue from Woodford's Corner to Deering Junction takes you through some of Portland's most trafficked streets and intersections. It also takes you down blocks dotted with restaurants, grocery stores, car sales and repair shops and even childcare bearing international names like Sindibad Market, Ahram Grocery, Babylon Restaurant, Sengchai Thai Cuisine and Tandoor Bread.

Walking the blocks, which run from about 600-1200 Forest Ave., you notice the smell of exotic spices and the sound of different languages lingering in the air. The area has become a cornucopia of multiculturalism, with purveyors who came here from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere as immigrants or refugees. Many chose Maine because they have friends or family here. Others cite the state's safety and opportunity to establish a new life.

These new Mainers — many of them are residents and can work as soon as they arrive — also exemplify the type of people the state needs to attract to be vibrant and to grow, experts say. Other areas of Portland also have clusters of immigrant-owned and operated businesses. There are close to 80 such businesses in Portland, according to CEI, which is more than the listings for the stores on Lisbon Street in Lewiston. Other immigrants have spread around greater Portland to nearby South Portland, Westbrook, Saco and Gorham.

"Maine needs to understand that these immigrants are going to save the economic vitality of the state," says Sally Sutton, program director of Portland Adult Education's New Mainers Resource Center, which educates and councils immigrants so they can get jobs. "Our death rate is higher than our birth rate. These people are younger, they have skills and they have children. They are exactly what Maine needs to solve its demographic challenges, and the sooner our politicians recognize this, the faster we'll be able to work towards solving the state's economic needs."

There were 44,687 immigrants in Maine in 2013, comprising 3.4% of the state's population, according to the 2013 American Community Survey. Some 3.2% of business owners in Maine are foreign-born and generate total net business income of $120 million. Undocumented immigrants paid $3.7 million in Maine state and local taxes in 2010, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. If they were to have legal status, they would pay $4.5 million in state and local taxes, including $2.9 million in sales taxes and $1.1 million in state income taxes.

Students also are contributing, with close to 1,200 foreign students in the state contributing $44.1 million to the state's economy in tuition, fees and living expenses for the 2013-2014 academic year, according to the Association of International Educators. The number of immigrants in Maine with a college degree rose by almost 54% from 2000 to 2011, according to the Maine Policy Institute.

Additionally, many of them are in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields. It's estimated Maine will need to fill 23,630 new STEM jobs in 2020, and immigrants will play a key role. A recent National Science Foundation study found that immigrants already are playing an increasing part in the U.S. science and engineering workforce.

Can New Mainers make up the deficit and keep the state viable going forward? "I think they've already done that," says Reza Jalali, coordinator of multicultural student affairs at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. "Lisbon Street in downtown Lewiston was dead a few years ago. Once the Somalis arrived, they started stores and then families moved into apartments that used to be empty, which attracted investors to buy and rehab more buildings, which meant jobs for local carpenters. And so it goes."

The same is happening in Portland, where a grocer or restaurant may initially serve their nationality group, but locals wishing to expand their palate will find their way into the neighborhood, he notes.

"There are about 20 nail salons and five Indian restaurants in Portland. They're hiring people, they're buying food and paying taxes," adds Jalali, who came to the United States as a refugee from Iran in May 1985. "From one end to the other of Forest Avenue, most of the businesses are immigrant-owned. Iraqis came here and started Iraqi food stores because they knew other Iraqis would want to cook Iraqi food. So we have four to five Iraqi stores in Portland, one in Westbrook and one in Biddeford."

A new start

Nagham Rikan, whose family owns the Babylon Restaurant that anchors the top end of immigrant businesses on Forest Avenue at Deering Junction, exemplifies the bumpy road New Mainers have to travel to make a new start.

In 2000, she and her parents, five sisters and two brothers moved from Najaf, southern Iraq, to Jordan, where they stayed as illegals until 2008. While her father had a bakery in Iraq, her younger brother was the only one who could work in Jordan. He was 10 1/2 and he had to work under the table to made most of the money for the family.

When they came to the United States as refugees, they first went to Mobile, Ala., where they were resettled by Catholic Charities and stayed for two years before coming to Maine, drawn by an acquaintance here. To raise money for the move, her two brothers installed insulation in Mobile.

"When I came, I could understand English 90%, but my ability to talk was about 60%," Rikan told Mainebiz over a lunch table filled with dishes of hummus, samboosa, falafel, lentils and rice soup and other Iraqi food. "I liked to listen rather than talk. But I realized I could not survive if I didn't start to speak."

Tae Chong, a business counselor at CEI's StartSmart business development program for immigrants and refugees, says Rikan and her family demonstrate the resilience that immigrants need to start a new life.

"They're not here to be on the dole. They've spent the last 11 years trying to find a way to survive," says Chong, whose family immigrated to America from South Korea when he was in first grade. "And given the circumstances, they're going to thrive. I think this restaurant is an example of that." He says that over the last five or six years, most of the new business startups in CEI's directory are Muslim, and they are in Portland, Westbrook, Lewiston and Biddeford.

Adds Rikan, "When we came to the United States, we were assigned to Catholic Charities and a case worker worked with us until we rented a house, found furniture, did all the paperwork and got a Social Security number. They met us at the airport."

Once they were resettled, they repaid their plane tickets.

"People think it's a free handout, but it's not," says Chong, adding that Catholic Charities may initially subsidize housing, but as soon as an immigrant gets a job they have to pay back the money.

Rikan is more enterprising than some other immigrants, says Chong, as she quickly tapped into Portland Adult Education, CEI, SCORE and Southern Maine Community College, which all aid or educate New Mainers.

"She is the exception," says Chong. "When she wants something she'll go after it. You can tell she's fearless. Not everyone is like that. That's what makes her restaurant stand out."

Refugees are different than asylum seekers in both their status in the United States and why they have entered the country. Asylum seekers leave their country of origin based on a fear of persecution. They are not immediately residents and must apply for asylum. Refugees typically already have a successful application and can work immediately. They may be fleeing civil war, for example.

Chong says Rikan was his first client at CEI. "We helped with everything," he says. "I helped negotiate the lease and took them to the bank to open a savings and checking account."

Rikan says her family did not take out a loan. CEI does, however, grant loans. Chong says one of the reasons a lot of Muslim refugees and immigrants come to CEI is because it has a Sharia-compliant loan, meaning it's a fee-based loan with no interest.

Paying or taking interest is not allowed under Sharia law. But there are ways around it such as rent-to-own, fee-based loans, shared loans and paying off credit cards fully every month. Banks do not offer Sharia-compliant loans, says Chong, who adds that offering them would be a great opportunity for any bank because there are thousands of Muslims in Maine.

While some new businesses get money from CEI, in other cases immigrants borrow money from one another, notes Jalali. He says people from Cambodia and Southeast Asia have their own banking system. For example, to start a business six families will put their money together. Immigrants in general tend to save more, he says.

Unmet needs

One of the greatest needs in Maine is to have a program office where the credentials of immigrants with degrees from other countries can be assessed for recredentialing, Jalali says.

"We have overqualified immigrants driving cabs who are engineers or have MD degrees and can't get certified," Jalali says.

"It makes no sense to me to have these people standing outside at Portland airport next to a taxi cab with an engineering degree," John Dorrer, a workforce analyst, said at the Envision Maine symposium late last year. "We're sort of shooting ourselves in the foot in that we're simply not exploiting the human capital that we've got in front of us."

"It's really about the underutilization of their talents, and I think that's going to be repeated over and over again," says Chong. "I can talk about Portland, but you can multiply that with the population in Lewiston, Auburn, Biddeford and Saco."

"The other thing about Portland is we're on the best lists for just about everything, and yet between 2000 and 2013 all the growth came from the immigrant population," he adds.

For professionals, it is a tough battle to get recertified. In some cases, like MDs, it requires essentially starting from scratch and retaking tests and redoing residencies. So instead of holding out hope for what she says is a long road ahead that may not pan out, Sutton of the New Mainers Resource Center says she tries to get them into other jobs, like a physician assistant, that will draw upon their skills.

"It's almost impossible for a physician to work again as a physician," says Sutton. "The University of New England has a physician assistant program. Someone may have to spend a little time getting into it, but it's a good way for a physician to get in the clinical field again and use as much of their experience as possible." She says recertification is an issue whether the person is an engineer, accountant or lawyer.

Her program at Portland Adult Education tries to get newcomers versed in how to get a job and to improve their English through classes.

"My focus has been on helping them get ready to work. That requires they know how to do a resume and look for a job and then interview for it," she says. She adds that one summer she ran an interviewing class with 15 people in it who had never been interviewed.

Sutton says the Portland Adult Education building is probably the most culturally diverse place in the state, with about 2,000 immigrants representing 81 different countries. In terms of the educational background of people coming through the New Mainers Resource Center, which number around 200, 120 have a bachelor's degree and 18 have a master's degree. Additionally, nine have law degrees and 26 have MDs.

Some New Mainers start from the bottom up in jobs doing dishes, driving taxis or working in the hospitality industry.

"These shouldn't be dead-end jobs," he says. "We have people who clean the floors at night or stock shelves. The offices downtown are being cleaned by these invisible people, these newly arrived immigrants."

Several Maine companies are offering upwardly mobile jobs, including L.L.Bean. The company hires around 5,000 seasonal employees at its peak business times to support its customer satisfaction operation in Freeport, according to Sharon Parritt, senior supervisor for learning and distribution at the company. That includes fulfilling orders and handling returns.

Just about everyone starts out as a seasonal employee, she notes, including now full-time employee Fatuma Hussein, who works in the distribution center and does some interpreting.

Hussein, 29, was born in Somalia and grew up in Kenya. She came to Atlanta first, and then to Maine in 2004. She started as a seasonal worker at L.L.Bean in 2008 and became full time in 2014.

"Coming to L.L.Bean was good for me. I learned new skills. I was a picker, I monograph, I do single backings and I fold clothes. I do many things," says Hussein.

"She is a highly engaged employee with a lot of skills, so she can go to many parts of the organization," says Parritt. She says every year seasonal and full-time employees go through diversity training, and that there is zero tolerance for any form of discrimination.

Applying for jobs can be difficult for other reasons, including business practices and questions that value responses geared toward an individualistic society compared to a group society, says Elizabeth Greason, owner and principal consultant at Maine Intercultural Communication Consultants in Portland.

"Online applications sometimes have drop down menus that only allow for American universities," she gives as one example. "People don't make it through the application process due to these small things that are inadvertent. And Americans use idioms such as 'Are you someone who grabs the bull by the horns?'" She says she tries to teach companies to use phrases like "Are you someone who takes initiative?" instead.

So how welcoming is Maine? If you're from the Middle East, it's cold, both in temperature and temperament.

"Maine continues to be not welcoming but it is a tolerant place for refugees and immigrants because there's a philosophy to leave me alone, don't bother me," says Jalali. "People are indifferent. That's better than hating you. Most refugees leave Maine mostly because they know someone somewhere else."

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