10 years after 9/11: Portland Muslims find Maine 'a special place'

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PORTLAND — After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Muslims were thrust into the spotlight.

For some Americans, the Muslim faith became associated with violence, and later with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the Muslim people of Portland, many of whom come from North Africa, the 10 years since the attacks have been a series of ups and downs.

Reza Jalali came to Maine as a refugee in 1985 from Ghana. He is an author, adjunct professor at the University of Southern Maine, Muslim chaplin at Bates College in Lewiston, and a vocal advocate for the Maine Muslim community.

“What happened on Sept. 11 was tragic,” Jalali said. “And as a Muslim in Maine, I felt both loved and hated.”

Jalali said he is frequently confronted with misinformation about Muslims, and does his best to educate the community with the facts.

“Some Americans imagine it’s a new faith. They think all Muslims are Arabs,” he said. “I tell them Arabs only make up a small portion of the Muslim faith.”

A majority of the world’s Muslims are in Indonesia, India and Pakistan, as well as North Africa.

At a recent presentation to a high school civil rights group, Jalali said, one student stood up and asked why we allow Muslims to build mosques after what happened on Sept. 11.

“I was hurt. I wasn’t angry,” Jalali said. “I was worried about the kitchen conversations that child was having. Who did he hear that from? What radio or television station was he watching?”

Portland’s School Department report that approximately 25 percent of the city’s students, or 1,800 children, are English language learners, and ELL enrollment has increased every year since 1999. While not all those students are Muslim, the schools report that many students speak Acholi, Arabic and Somali as their first languages.

Muna Ali, a 28-year-old Muslim woman who came with her family to Portland in 2001, said she has witnessed discrimination and confusion about her faith.

“I was on the bus with my sister,” Ali said. “This guy, he wasn’t from Maine I don’t think. He was saying things about Muslims and immigrants, saying ‘go back to your country.'”

But Ali told him this was her country and her sister told him that they were all immigrants to this country, unless he was Native America.

“He said, ‘Oh, you speak English?’ I think he was surprised,” she said.

Ali has lived in Portland since she was 17 years old, when her family came to Maine from a refugee camp in Kenya. She had lived in that camp since she was 8 years old. She said the Kenyan guards were cruel and there was never enough food.

But when she came to Maine, she was amazed by how friendly most people were. She graduated from Portland High School, where, she said, the teachers were great and very respectful.

“After Sept. 11, people looked at you like you were some kind of alien,” she said. “But you see people who smile, who go out of their way to say hi.”

Ali later graduated with an associate degree from Southern Maine Community College in South Portland and has been working as an advocate and translator for new immigrants, some of whom suffer from depression as they struggle to adapt to their new environment.

She said there are crazy people everywhere and that she tries not to let the mean ones, like the man on the bus, or the man on the street who recently hollered ‘go back to Afghanistan,’ get to her.

“We’re not from Afghanistan,” she said with a laugh.

Jalali also said there was something about Maine that is special.

“Maine is so magical when it comes to tolerating people from different backgrounds,” he said. “Maine is a special place. I’m sure I would be treated more harshly in other places and in other countries. Muslims in America are the freest Muslims in the world.”

Ali said she recently traveled to Dallas, which solidified her love of Portland.

“I feel attached to Portland,” Ali said. “I feel like this is my hometown.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

Sidebar Elements

Portland’s Muslim community has had highs and lows since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.