Portland center hopes to add 'wow' to immigrant experience

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PORTLAND — Before the ribbon was cut Monday, Alain Nahimana simply explained the aim of the new Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center.

“We want everyone who comes here to know they have a chance,” he said July 28.

On July 31, independent U.S. Sen. Angus King and Councilor Pious Ali were on hand for the center’s opening at 24 Preble St. Later in the day, Auto Europe CEO Imad Khalid spoke at a reception at the Portland Public Library.

Nahimana, the executive director, said the celebrations mark a new approach to economic development and cultural inclusion for immigrants, one that merges agencies, entrepreneurs and ideas in 4,000 square feet of offices and meeting rooms with state-of-the-art digital technologies.

The concept is one Nahimana envisioned three years ago, but said would never have happened without the collaboration and buy-in from area business leaders and other supporters.

“What you see here is because businesses have stepped up,” he said. “I came from a background as a community organizer. I do not say ‘I;’ I say ‘we.’ This was really a ‘we’ work.”

Burundian by birth, Nahimana has advocated for immigrants with the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, and said the center is constructed on three pillars.

The first is to break down language barriers and provide innovative ways to help immigrants learn English in a digital language lab. The second is to provide the space and technology for entrepreneurs to develop ideas and connect to sources of capital and technological support. The third is to increase civic participation and move immigrants on the path to become citizens.

“It is ultimately to get people to vote and voice opinions,” Nahimana said. “You cannot build an inclusive economy without an inclusive democracy.”

The center is a nonprofit, but takes on the appearance of a for-profit business center deliberately.

“What is the image of success and dreams?” Nahimana asked. “What reflects our aspirations?”

Center members can work from their own cubicles and desks, meet in two conference rooms equipped for digital meetings, and are provided high-speed internet and Wi-Fi along with a printer, scanner and fax.

Members already include New Mainers Tenants’ Association, Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, Maine Intercultural Communications Consultants and Maine Intercultural Communications Consultants.

“It is a coworking space to foster collaboration and empower groups,” Nahimana said. “We want to avoid people working in silos.”

Corporate support has come from Coffee by Design, Angela Adams, Avesta Housing and Westbrook-based Sigco, among others. The center’s board of directors includes Marpheen Chann, Maine Center for Economic Policy campaign and digital communications coordinator; City Council candidate Dr. Deb Rothenberg of Maine Medical Center, and Tae Chong of Coastal Enterprises.

The board diversity is a deliberate approach, Nahimana said, as is the art provided by Creative Portland.

“This is the ‘wow’ we want, when people see immigrants are succeeding and thriving,” Nahimana said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Alain Nahimana said the new Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center on Preble Street fosters collaboration, civic involvement and economic development. “We want everyone who comes here to know they have a chance,” he said July 28.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.