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Immigrant teens from Portland share stories through film
Morning Sentinel
Sunday, May 20, 2012
The inner lives of teenagers can be hard to penetrate. With the added barriers of language and cultural differences, teenage immigrants can appear to be living in a world that is shut tight to everyone around them.

The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center, has found a way to help 15 immigrant teenagers from Portland open that world to the larger community.

The Space Gallery on Thursday night will premier 15 short videos the teens produced with the help of local filmmaker David Meiklejohn and artist-in-residence Sonya Tomlinson, as part of the Telling Room's Young Writers and Leaders Program.

In the videos, which are two to four minutes long, the teenagers use music, scene selection and their own words to tell their stories of life in America. The teenagers come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Uganda and Haiti.

They worked for three months on the project. On Thursday, after school, they gathered at the Telling Room writing center on Commercial Street to watch Meiklejohn show a rough cut of all the videos.

While each one is different, there are some common themes.

Wealth does not come easily for everyone in America, as several of teenagers had assumed before they had arrived here with their families. One girl from Afghanistan said she had expected she would become a famous singer in America. Another girl from Rwanda was surprised the first time she saw a homeless person.

Some of their observations of American life would surprise some native-born Mainers, such as the assertion that schools here are easier than in their homelands, or that crime here is worse. One girl from Somalia says her parents never locked their doors at night until they moved to Portland.

Still, even if life here can be difficult, and although most of the young people seem burdened by the hopes and sacrifices of their parents, they all expressed appreciation of the opportunities that America gives them.

Elias Nasrat, 18, who fled Afghanistan in 2007 and lived in New Delhi with his family before moving to Maine a year ago, says he loved feeling the chill on his face when first arrived in Maine because it reminded him of the cool air in Afghanistan.

"I was surprised by the overall discipline of the American people," he says. "It seems civilized and clean."

He tells how his family fled Afghanistan after bombs destroyed their city. He narrates while sitting alone on bleachers at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

"I think how lucky students both here and in New Delhi are not to worry about their safety every day," he says.

Amira Alsammrai, 19, from Iraq, says she didn't go to school for six years because it was too dangerous.

"My first day in Maine," she says, "I thought there is someone (who) opened a big door for me and asked me to see things I couldn't see before, of the whole world waiting for me."

Maryan Abbi, 16, is a Somali who was born in a Kenyan refugee camp. Much of her video was shot on East End Beach, her favorite place in the city.

When her family immigrated to America five years ago, she says, they left behind her grandmother.

"I knew you were far away, but your love keeps me safe and gives me peace," she says, looking out toward Casco Bay. "I wish you were here with me."

While making the video, she initially didn't want to be seen at all. Her face in the video appears only in silhouette or in brief glimpses.

Abbi wept while watching the video at last Thursday's screening.

She said she plans to put Somali subtitles in the video and then give a copy to someone traveling to Somalia so her grandmother will see it.

She said it was difficult to express something that is so personal in such a public way.

"It was really tough," she said. "I thought I never could never tell this story to anybody on film. But I am proud I did this. I hope my grandmother will be able to see what I did for her."

Thursday's premier at Space Gallery begins at 7 p.m. There will also be a showing at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass., at 4 p.m. June 2, and at One Longfellow Square in Portland at 7 p.m. June 23.

The Telling Room plans to put the videos on its YouTube channel by the end of summer.


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