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Arabian Nights Turn Into Snow Days

When the civil war broke out in Libya, Bassam and his family fled to Tunisia as refugees for two and a half years. They spent half of that time in a refugee camp.

Bassam had a twisted road on his journey to America. He was born in Libya 2001 and lived there until 2009. He then moved to Syria for 1 year because his mom didn’t like it in Libya. Bassam and his family were trying to see if Syria was a better place for them while his dad and oldest brother stayed in Libya for work then moved back to Libya in 2011.

“I learned English by watching American movies in Libya and I watched a lot since I didn’t go to school, so I had a lot of free time.” His parents did not have a car, and they were afraid to let him walk the distance needed to get to the local school. He remembers he seldom went outside because his family was super protective.

“After our application got filed by our United Nations worker we could move to the United States. They told everyone that it was going to take two to four months max to get out of the camps, but it took two and a half years.”

Migration from the of the Middle East and North Africa to the United States began in the late 1800s and picked up in recent decades, driven largely by political turmoil in the region and economic opportunities abroad. Middle Easterners are one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in America. While the size of the overall immigrant population has tripled since 1970, the number of immigrants from the Middle East has grown more than seven-fold, from fewer than 200,000 in 1970 to nearly 1.5 million in 2000.

Bassam is currently a US citizen and a senior at Biddeford High School. Bassam didn’t adapt right away when he moved to the USA and only knew other refugee families when he arrived.

Bassam was surprised by many cultural differences when he arrived in U.S. beyond the obvious difference in climate. “Here you are exposed to way more drugs…in my opinion parents here give their kids a lot of freedom at a young age and the young mind likes experimenting. Since there’s an abundance of alcohol and drugs here it’s inevitable to stumble upon it as a teenager, however, you can’t blame kids, it’s about how they were raised.”

Bassam is just one of the teens from Middle East refugees in Maine that notices the drug epidemic happening in Maine.

The population who identified as having Arabic-speaking ancestry in the U.S. Census grew by more than 47% between 2000 and 2010. In 2016, nearly 1.2 million immigrants from the Middle East and North African region lived in the United States, accounting for roughly 3 percent of the country’s approximately 44 million immigrants.

The number of Mainers who claim an Arab ancestry more than doubled since the Census first measured ethnic origins in 1980 and our state has one of the fastest growing Arab populations in the country. It is estimated that the statewide population, adjusting for under-reporting, is close to 13,224 according to the national immigration census.

Mustafa is 18 and also currently a senior at Biddeford High School with a US citizen status. Mustafa and his family were endangered during the beginning portion of his life in Baghdad.

“We then moved to Syria and after two years we applied for refugee status through the United Nations. After 8 months they told us that we were going to get moved to America and we were so happy.”

Mustafa also had a winding path before finally landing in Maine where his family of 6 are making a home. He first arrived in Tennessee when he first came to the USA. After two months of living there, his family moved to Maine for four years from 2010 to 2014 and then back again back to Iraq for seven months.

“We moved back to a safe place in Iraq to move the rest of my family out of the dangerous spots because of ISIS invading. Because of the time this took, I got held back in school for a year. On the bright side, I got to understand geometry a whole lot better.”

Mustafa and the rest of his family picked up again and moved to Ohio because it was warmer, then back again to Maine where he and his family resides today.

“We kept coming back to Maine because it was safe.”

In 2016, nearly 1.2 million immigrants from the Middle East and North African region lived in the United States, accounting for roughly 3 percent of the country’s approximately 44 million immigrants.

Westbrook and Portland are two of Maine’s most popular areas for middle eastern immigrants. Between 2012 and 2013 out of 2,360 ELL students, Portland had 1,469 of them and Westbrook had the second highest amount with 265 ELL students.  Over time, Westbrook and Portland have quickly become more diverse with multiple Al Adin and Halal markets on their main streets.

Mahmood Abdulla, a 52 year old immigrant from Iraq also lives in Biddeford, and is the owner of one of these Halal markets on Westbrook’s Main Street. Abdulla distributes products, such as spices and cultural food, to Arabic stores and individuals looking for a taste of home or a chance to try something new. He admits leaving his homeland behind has been hard. “I’m not adjusting to the culture here…but people here respect me and my culture and I respect whatever they do. I like life in Iraq more, but here there are more opportunities to grow and it’s better for my kids.”

For now, Bassam, Mustafa, and Mahmood are happy to finally be safe, in Maine.

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