Portland High School students revive International Club

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PORTLAND — After hiatus of nearly four years, the International Club is back at Portland High School with a goal of celebrating, educating and preserving the cultures represented by students.

The club was revived partly in response to the anti-immigrant overtones of the presidential election this past fall. But mostly, the students said, they just want to encourage an appreciation for all the different cultures at Portland High. 

“Portland High is one of the most diverse schools in Maine, but it’s not appreciated,” said one of the club’s founders, senior Dina Malual. “We want to get the whole school to acknowledge all cultures.”

Malual said the club tries to avoid politics, but another founder, junior Christina Donato, acknowledged, “the election definitely brought these issues more to the forefront.”

The club has only been active for about a month. As their first project, members put up flags all around the school to represent the more than 50 countries that students and staff come from, either directly or through their ancestry.

“We wanted to do the flags to say, ‘we appreciate you and where you’re from,’” Malual said, “because a lot of times (people) don’t feel welcome.”

Jennifer Sebit, another club member, agreed, saying the goal of the club is “to bring (an acceptance of) diversity back to the school. I like bragging about my culture and being open about it.”

Donato, who is also a student representative to the School Board, said the flag project has been a success.

“A lot of people mention how much they love the flags, and at our (recent) open house, the only thing that showed how diverse we are were the flags,” she said.

The International Club exists to “unite students from all backgrounds,” according to Johannah Burdin, a guidance counselor who serves as one of the club’s advisers. The other adviser is Andres Llorentes, who teaches English Language Learner classes.

The club is open to any student, although the majority of members are girls of color. With only one boy now in the group, the hope is to include many more students of different backgrounds and gender.

“It’s important for non-colored people to be involved, they should be a part of it, too,” Donato said. “We need to (always) seek out other opinions and keep an open mind.”

“I think what we’re learning here is not to stereotype people,” Malual added. “We’re laying common ground,” she said, and not judging other students based on where they’re from.

Sebit said the club was also re-created because “we were worried that people might feel scared or feel it’s dangerous to express themselves.”

In addition to the flag project, members of the International Club also want to put on a multicultural show that would feature traditional dances, songs and fashions, as well as a dinner with foods from all the cultures at the school.

The show is something the previous incarnation of the International Club was well known for, and members of the club today said they remember attending the multicultural show as elementary school students.

“It was interesting to learn the traditions of (others) and it was just really fun,” Sebit said.

“It was also great seeing your own culture shown off to the entire school,” Malual added.

What Donato said she most remembers is that the show brought out “real smiles” and that everyone, no matter their background, always seemed to genuinely be having fun.

The multicultural show will likely take place sometime in April, Burdin said. She said the club is still trying to determine the best date and time with the school administration.

The most active students in the International Club are also heavily involved in a variety of other school and outside activities. They all play sports, including basketball, volleyball and cross-country.

Donato is also in the Civil Rights Club and Malual is a member of the mock trial team, the Model UN, and is on the executive board of the Student Council.

Outside of school, several of the International Club members also belong to Portland Empowered, a group of students, parents and school leaders dedicated to ensuring “equity and excellence for all learners across racial, cultural, linguistic (and) socioeconomic backgrounds,” according to the organization’s Facebook page.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

Members of the International Club at Portland High School include, front row from left, Nasteho Djama, Hamdi Sheikh, Dina Malual, Christina Donato, Lamiaa Mohammad, Safa Mohammed, May Odongkara, Jennifer Sebit and Cindy Alex. Second row from left are Usira Ali, Neima Houssein, Roukia Houssein, Adilia Retoloza and Tasha Tracy.