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Maine's refugees shine on World Refugee Day

Portland and Lewiston hosted World Refugee Day in Maine Monday, where around 50,000 immigrants and asylum seekers live.

PORTLAND, Maine — World Refugee Day has hundreds of Mainers learning about the diverse immigrant communities that call Maine home Monday.

Celebrations in Portland and Lewiston drew hundreds Monday evening, with Portland's hosted by the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center for the first time at Congress Square Park.

For Executive Director Reza Jalali, who is originally from Iran but now works out of downtown Portland, it's a labor of love.

"We have a growing population of immigrant refugees. We call them new Mainers. [They] have come from all over the world to start new lives here, and at times, they are invisible to us," Jalali said. "And at the same [time], we have to be mindful to the contributions they have made to the state we love so much."

Jalali and his staff were preparing for this evening all day.

Rita Welcih, a community navigator with the Immigrant Welcome Center who originally came from Colombia two years ago, said being able to host World Refugee Day allows her to help people who have just arrived to Maine from other countries.

"I really want immigrants to be a part of Maine and Portland, the community, and that personally is very important to me... We want people who come to Maine to feel like they are part of the community. We want them to feel like a part of Maine," Welcih said.

The Immigrant Welcome Center estimates there are around 50,000 immigrants and asylum seekers living in Maine, with many coming from Somalia and Afghanistan.

Jalali said Ukrainians will soon make up a large portion of the population as well.

"We hope that many Mainers join us today to celebrate World Refugee Day and meet a refugee, an immigrant, an asylum seeker. To hug them and to welcome them, and shake their hand," Jalali said. "We do that because Maine is a fantastic state, it's what we do."

For Lewiston, the event is in its 20th year of observance. 

Fatuma Hussein with the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine said 11 cultures were represented at Monday's celebration for World Refugee Day.

"What we want people to know and to be part of is embracing diversity, embracing community, and collectively saying that we are one Maine," Hussein said. "At the end of the day, the state of Maine has so many backgrounds and so many people, yet we represent the state of Maine."

Asylum seekers looking for help in the state of Maine can access it through Maine Equal Justice.

Those looking to help refugees can access the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center's volunteer program.

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