SMCC immigrant students tell stories to learn, and to teach

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SOUTH PORTLAND —  Nine immigrants from seven war-torn countries told their stories last week at City Hall.

They speak 12 languages, and practice three religions. They spoke of seeing the deepest depths of human suffering, and human kindness.

But in each story, one message remained the same:

“We are more the same than different, and our differences are only our different gifts we bring to the world,” said Rosemarie DeAngelis, adjunct professor of advanced ESL speaking and listening at Southern Maine Community College. 

After several weeks of writing, editing and rehearsal, DeAngelis’ 10th SMCC class spoke about their difficult journeys to the U.S. in a series of speeches called Sacred Stories. In front of a crowd of 60 people, they spoke in a second language about their darkest tragedies and greatest triumphs. 

Ghafran Mahdi, of Iraq, recalled a night of bombings in 2007 where she, at age 13, hid in a closet with her entire family. She dropped out of school and fled with her family to Syria for three years before seeking asylum in the U.S.

“My father said leave everything behind and we will come back. Of course, though, we never did,” she said. 

“With all these adversities I’ve had, I still honor this night, which helped me understand my life can stop at any moment,” she said.

Many students attributed their safety and success to the kindness of people who they often thought were the enemy.

After her village was destroyed by rebels and she was separated from her family, Natacha Uwimana, a Rwandan and a Tutsi, was protected and given food and shelter by a Hutu woman.

“Through her, I saw love, caring and mercy,” Uwimama said. “She taught me to love others not because they are from my village. She taught me love has no color, ethnicity or religion; it’s just love, and that we all just need to love one another. It is that simple.”

Each of their stories highlighted the importance of education.

“It’s more than what’s in the books,” said Mahdi Addan of Somalia, who was often kicked out of school as a child when his parents could not afford to pay. He is now in the computer programming program at SMCC.

“It teaches us understanding, acceptance and forgiveness, and helps minimize stereotyping,” Addan said. “I believe education is a golden chance for self improvements.”

What began as an exercise for an advanced English class in speaking before a small group of friends has grown dramatically DeAngelis said, sometimes drawing more people than there are chairs at City Hall and calling for more and more boxes of tissues. 

“It’s truly the richest work I’ve ever done,” said DeAngelis, who is also running as a Democrat for election to the Legislature in state House District 33. 

Students from this group may now join other former students of DeAngelis in a growing nonprofit group called Color of Community. Started in 2009, the group of more than 20 continues to share their stories of hardship written in DeAngelis’ class at schools and congregations across the state. Although made up entirely of former SMCC students, the group is not affiliated with SMCC. 

Many members of Color of Community were in attendance May 1 to encourage the speakers. 

“I was here, standing here in December last year, I know how that feels to tell other people about your life,” Ninette Irabaruta told the crowd after the presentations had finished. “It is not easy, but if you talk and tell everyone how you feel and what you experienced, you feel good. You feel like there’s something you’re holding in your heart and you let that go.”

Other members of the public who attended said they were changed by the presentations. 

Valeria Larochelle, 60, grew up in Old Orchard beach with DeAngelis, and said she never knew anyone of another ethnic group.

“I’m so impressed with all of you, you touched me with your stories,” she said in the guest comment portion of the presentation. “You’re so brave, you’re so articulate, your English is fantastic. … You had us laugh, you had us cry; I’m so glad I came.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever again look at someone who’ s different from me in the same way,” Larochelle said. 

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.

Sidebar Elements

Southern Maine Community College immigrant students told of their journeys to the U.S. in a Sacred Stories presentation on May 1 at South Portland City Hall. Seated right to left they are Amira Alsammrai; Tan Nguyen; instructor Rosemarie De Angelis; Zohal Rahimi, and Ghafran Mahdi. Standing, right to left: Yvonne Nyabeza; Compagnie Niryumwani; Nour Alsammrai; Mahdi Addan; Natacha Uwimana, and Munye Mohamed.