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International students at SMCC look to translate experiences into a new language

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International students at SMCC look to translate experiences into a new language

SOUTH PORTLAND — On Tuesday evening, a group of 11 international students at Southern Maine Community College was putting the final touches on its end-of-semester projects. 

Over the next week, the students will visit elementary students in Topsham and give short speeches in the council chambers at South Portland City Hall. The speeches will be delivered from 3-5 p.m. before a live audience and broadcast on SPC-TV.

Rosemarie DeAngelis, an adjunct professor at SMCC who was recently elected to the City Council, said part of her advanced speaking and listening for English language learners is to involve students in their communities and, in turn, introduce the students to their community. In the process, DeAngelis hopes to dispel misnomers often associated with immigrants.

"This is a chance for students to be empowered to give voice to their lives, their values and their experiences," DeAngelis said. "I want them to understand the meaning of social capital, involvement in community and making a difference; this is a way to do that."

On Thursday, Dec. 10, the students will deliver speeches about the following writing prompt: write something personal and about which you are passionate. 

The SMCC students come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are Vietnamese immigrants who have come to the United States to get an education and ultimately plan to return home. Others, however, are refugees from Iran, Somalia, Rwanda and Sudan who were forced to leave their homelands under the threat of violence, but would return if political and cultural changes take place. 

Navid Sabeti, a 19-year-old Iranian living in Portland, and Providence Mbabazi, a 21-year-old Rwandan also living in Portland, may come from different parts of the world, but both hope to use their speeches next week to tell the stories of their troubled homelands in order to effect change. Unlike many of their classmates, neither one is nervous about speaking in front of a live audience or being broadcast on TV.

"As a future leader, I will need to learn how to give a speech," said Mbabazi, who came to came to the U.S. nearly a year ago. "I'm not scared." 

Sabeti was forced to leave Iran because the Shiite-ruled country does not permit people of his religion, the Baha'i faith, to attend college. The Baha'i faith is inclusive of all other religions, he said.

"This speech will be a good opportunity to let people know," said Sabeti, noting that Iranian control of the Internet often prevents stories from getting out to the rest of the world. Reforms will have to be more than changing a president, he said; the whole system must be reformed to separate religion from government. "If the country becomes free of the government," he said. "I would be happy to go back and build a country." 

Ekhlas Ahmed, an 18-year-old Sudanese who is living in Portland, said she came to the U.S. five years ago because her father believed a war was about to break out. Her family left everything behind – their house, their belongings, their family and friends.

"I had a feeling like I was never coming back; it was a scary thought," said Ahmed, who was 11 at the time. "(Now) I feel like I will go back, but it won't be the same. Everything will change, totally." 

During her speech at City Hall next week, Ahmed said she will talk about an issue that is undoubtedly on the minds of many refugees: what it is like to essentially be living in two cultures, with her Sudanese roots and her current life in America.  

"Identifying yourself, I think that's a problem we are all facing," Ahmed said. "I am from Sudan, but I also feel like part of me is American, because I've lived here for so long. Also, remembering where your roots are."

But for one 37-year-old student from Turkey it was love, not war, that brought him to the U.S.

"My wife is from Maine," said Sinan Ozyazgan, who met  his wife in an Internet chat room. "She didn't want to live in Turkey, because she has her daughter, so I came here. I will be talking about marrying someone from a different culture." 

One thing, however, unites the international students: they appreciate the opportunities in the U.S. for education and employment, and are awed by how people of different races, religions and sexes can coexist peacefully and, for the most part, equally. 

"That was the most shocking thing," Sabeti said. 

This is the third year of DeAngelis' program, and the first where the students' speeches will be delivered to an audience. People interested in joining the audience must e-mail her at rdeangel@maine.rr.com.  

"It's so much more powerful if you're there to witness them," DeAngelis said. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net