Portland resident Sarah Mahdi (left) left her native Iraq - along with her sister and mother - a year ago, bound for the United States. The reason? Not surprisingly, personal safety.
"The situation back home is really, really dangerous," she says, "and we lost people in our family. And at some point, you have to say, 'Enough,' and you have to move."
Mahdi came to the U.S. with a bachelor's degree in information technology. Getting this qualification recognized and evaluated in Maine, however, proved a major headache.
"You cannot act like the way you did back home," she says. "You're in a strange place and you don't know a lot of people. And you have a degree and you want to do something but you cannot, and you feel like trapped."
"When I first came to the States I just wanted to study," said Mahdi, who was among a handful of immigrant students sharing their experiences Wednesday night at a panel discussion in Portland. The panel was organized by the University of Southern Maine's Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, and Catholic Charities Maine.
Mahdi says she eventually found out about a private organization in Boston that translates and evaluates overseas degrees and diplomas - for a fee - and essentially tells you what they're worth in the U.S. The process took five months, but Mahdi is enrolled in a pre-med course at Southern Maine Community College, soon to transfer to the USM. Her ambition is to be a cardiologist.
An audience hears from a panel of immigrants about the problems highly-educated new-comers have finding jobs commesurate with their skills.
"I think we are seeing tremendous change and growth in the Portland community," says Southern Maine Community College President Ron Cantor. "And we have people from far reaches of the world who are coming to Maine and settling in Portland. They're bringing a wealth of experience."
But, says Cantor, more should be done to take advantage of the many skilled and qualified immigrants who come here.
"To be honest about it, we don't have easy points of conversion or access so that we can acknowledge what they have," he says. "We're working with a lot of organizations and people in order to build those and make those happen, to smooth the transitions."
One place immigrants can turn to is the newly-established New Mainers Resource Center, one of the several service providers on hand at Wednesday night's event to offer advice. The center's program co-ordinator, Sally Sutton, is talking to George Dakonsa, who arrived here from the Democratic Republic of Congo seeking asylum four months ago.
"I have a bachelor's degree in economics and finance," he says. "I'd like it if they can help me to evaluate."
The center was recently opened by Portland Adult Education with the aim of specifically helping college-educated immigrants in their search for suitable employment or further education. Co-ordinator Sutton says with immigrants like Dakonsa come an opportunity to breathe new economic life into the state.
"Because what Maine needs - as we've all been told, we're very old and as we get older we're aging out of the workforce," Sutton says. "And if you look at Maine's immigrant and refugee population, they're younger and they come with skills. And so they're exactly what the state of Maine needs to reinvigorate its economy."
The New Mainers Resource Center, however, may end up being a short-lived venture. It's meant to be a two-year pilot project funded at $75,000 a year.
But the program could be eliminated after its first year - just one small part of the nearly $34 million in spending cuts being recommended in a report commissioned by the LePage administration, looking for ways to balance the two-year budget.
Supporters say the New Mainers Resource Center plays a crucial role in integrating immigrants. But Julie Rabinowitz from the Maine Department of Labor says a lot of what the center has to offer can also be provided by existing resources, including Career Centers in Lewiston and in Portland, where a tri-lingual consultant is employed specifically to help immigrants.
"What we're trying to do in the Career Centers is identify what people are doing, what their skills are and how we can bring them back into the system," Rabinowitz says.
The final decision on whether to approve the elimination of the New Mainers Resource Center will be made by the Legislature in the coming months.
Photos: Tom Porter