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Incomer Magazine

Portland: It Pays to Inspire

Ok, so what do you get when you fuse nationalities, cultures, and ethnicities? Well, just look outside: You get Portland. If you haven’t already noticed, there is something special and unique happening right here in Forest City. With its diverse population and countless influences, it has become a cultural mecca, setting a new standard in food, music, art, and fashion. 

The best cities around the world can all claim their own essence and character that makes them exceptional and unlike any other. Over the past decade or so, Portland has been busy carving out its own slice of worldly individuality.

On the surface, you have the old Portland, an encapsulated version of so many other historical places around the country, particularly here in New England, that offers fantastic scenery, arts, culture, and romance. However, you only need to look a little deeper to find the richness and authenticity that sets Portland apart.

According to Layla Kargar, publisher of Incomer magazine, “it goes well beyond being a melting pot of different races. It’s a culturally happy place.” Portland has become a sensory delight of sights and sounds, and a kaleidoscope of color. It is oozing in creativity, making it a one of a kind city. Most importantly, it is an amazing place to live.

The aesthetics of our city have changed. It’s had a facelift. Many more immigrants call Portland home. In fact, over the last decade, 75 percent of all immigrants have been asylum seekers, refugees, and first-generation immigrants. If you venture out to Deering High School, you will find the most diverse High School north of Boston, with 60 percent of its student body coming from interracial families. They were the first high school in Maine to offer Arabic classes that focused on culture as well as language. This is possibly the truest representation of the city; it’s a microcosm of how the demographic continues to trend and change and a glimpse towards what our future will be.

Of course, the most obvious change is the fashion revolution that is on full display for all to see. The streets of Portland have become permanent catwalks, with gorgeous, homemade garments paraded around with dignity and pride. Even on the darkest and dreariest days, in the dead of winter, the brightly colored textiles worn by our new Mainers give the city a sense of life and vibrancy. There are magnificent garments, meticulously embroidered with an old-world craftsmanship and quality, long since lost in the modern day of mass production. Then there are the eye-catching and beautifully dyed indigo robes. Both men and women wear long, flowing looks that flutter majestically in the bay breeze. The wraps and hijabs worn by women come in their own styles and fabrics. 

If you are standing in line at the grocery store and you are taken aback by the intricate beads and necklaces, don’t be surprised if you are offered a free lesson on how they are made. Our new Incomers are only too happy to share their ethos and their knowledge. Our old Mainers are only too happy to receive it. This is what makes living in Portland so unique. It is all-inclusive, with a real sense of community. There is a glow around the city and it is not just from the illumination of the old lighthouses. It is from the illumination of our shared human spirit.

Step outside. Close your eyes. Listen. Do your ears perk up when they hear the sound of countless languages, rolling off tongues that can only be described as a linguistic delight? Despite the many dialects, tones and foreign languages spoken, the city has been able to maintain a strong, unified and powerful voice. Young immigrants have moved here with a message of hope and have accepted the challenge of standing up and fighting for their own individual rights and those in their communities. They join hands with Mainers who have lived here for generations and come together as friends and as neighbors. 

When the words don’t seem to flow too easily, or the intended message is lost in translation, there is always dancing and music to fall back on. The African rhythms played on the Djembe with bare hands, or the singing of traditional songs, give great insight into our new Incomers that might otherwise be more difficult to understand and decipher. As well as being ritualistic and ceremonial, they are also a great communicator and a way of bringing people together.

On a national level, there is no doubt that the political climate has set a mood that may not be conducive to celebratory festivities. However, here in Portland, the music being created, the singing, the dancing is cause for happiness and celebration. And while nationally the mood may seem sombre, around here the music is having a more positive effect. Political affiliation, social status and race are all being set aside as people of all walks of life come together through dance and song in partnership and solidarity.

If the John Lennon (Plastic Ono Band) classic “Give Peace a Chance” was the anthem of a generation gone by, then it is quite possible that the eclectic sounds of the truly multi-cutural Bondeko are the songs of a new generation. They are just one of the many other voices and instruments that make up this wondrous, musical landscape, creating a wall of sound that is empowering and inspiring. It is upbeat and, put simply: It makes people happy.

If you take advantage of Portland’s easy walking and accessibility, you will notice that there is a vibe around the city that is electrifying. The smells and aromas, emanating from kitchens everywhere will have you salivating from street corner to street corner. It’s happening right in front of our collective noses. It is universally accepted that nothing brings people together like a good, hearty meal. Here in Portland we have the best of the best. The differing cuisines on offer have helped make Portland the number one favored city for dining out in the country, as voted by Bon Appetite magazine in 2018.

Yes, that’s right — not San Francisco, not New York, but Portland.

If you’re ready and willing to go on a culinary adventure, in amongst the Bohemian enclave of burgers and breweries, you will find dishes fit for any palate. Incomers have brought with them a taste of home, introducing delectable dishes prepared with spices and ingredients that Maine’s generational locals and out of state travelers are lapping up, one bite at a time. From Iraqi Shawarmas to Indian Curries, from Conga’s Chicken Moambe to a Vietnamese bowl of Bun Cha, there is something for everybody here on the streets of Portland. Whether people are clanging their glasses and making a toast at the Novare Res Bier Café, or breaking bread, roti or Xalwo, what is clear is that Portland’s dynamic food culture is bringing people together, in restaurants, cafes and homes.

There have been attempts by the media in recent months to undermine the good work and good will that is being created in our city. In certain respects, Portland, Maine, represents a microcosm of the immigration issues that we see across the country today. The latest backlash, targeting recent immigrants, is unjust and untrue.

What is being reported? That immigrants are milking the system and siphoning resources off the backs and good will from residents of Portland. One interesting assertion is that there are several free services such as legal advice and housing assistance that are not offered to taxpayers but are offered to recent immigrants. What is not being reported is the trade-off, what immigrants forfeit to receive those benefits. As reported, Ahmed Abbas, owner of Ameera Bread arrived on our shores with an engineering degree. However, before he could take advantage of his education and apply it in a work setting, he was told that he would need to volunteer his skills and knowledge, without pay.

Refugees arrive here with very little money. They are displaced and seeking help, seeking refuge. Certain factions of the media have an agenda to divide, to create an “us and them” state. Fortunately, most Mainers realize that people who come here are not looking for a free hand out, just a fair shake. Immigrants bring a mindset built on hard work, dedication and an eye for opportunity that is spawning some of the most successful businesses and entrepreneurs in our city. Stories like Ahmed’s reflect the extraordinary value that immigrants and refugees bring to the Portland area.

Portland, through its acceptance of others, and its willingness to be open minded and welcoming, is setting a gold standard in leading the way for Maine, and the rest of the country, to follow. The common thread in this Incomer Issue is bringing a sense of love and humanity into everything you do. If you can hold your head up high and be proud of what you are putting out there, in music, dance, art, food or fashion, then this city is going to love and respect you in return. Our recent immigrants have brought a sense of style, a swagger and a confidence that can only be described as inspiring. Portland is so lucky to have them.

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