“The hardest was to find snow suits for the babies,” Penny Carson tells me as she gestures to the navy toddler suit lying next to the heaps of English Language Learner workbooks and vocabulary flashcards on the couch.
Penny Carson, a retiree in her seventies, volunteers as an English teacher to newly arriving refugees and asylum seekers at local non-profit In Her Presence.
“There will always be more need this winter you know, so I’ll keep it, of course,” Penny continues rummaging through boxes in her learning room, where she’s collected and/or developed materials for use in her classes. “I tend to get carried away though,” she tells me.
“It's just impossible not to. When I see the women, in December, coming to class with flip flops and barely even a light sweater, I think, how can they learn? How can they focus if they're freezing? You can't walk in Maine sidewalks with flip-flops in December!” She pauses and sighs.
Then she pulls out a book. “The Berenstain Bears!,” she exclaims. “Now, what could be more fun than The Berenstain Bears, right?” She chuckles and goes on to explain how helpful the Amelia Bedelia series has been in teaching idiom and figurative speech in her classes.
Penny Carson with her dog Daisy.
“Penny! What a wonderful woman,” Nahlah Alsafar tells me over Arabic tea and homemade cashew cookies in her second floor Parkside apartment. Penny was Nahlah’s first English teacher when she began courses with In Her Presence. Nahlah is originally from Iraq and arrived here with her husband and three daughters last fall. Their eldest, Yusur, enters high school this year and their youngest, Malak, is eight years old and already a little social butterfly. All three speak English, Turkish, and Arabic fluently.
Turkish is liveliest in their minds, they tell me, and reflect on the three years spent in a Turkish refugee camp prior to arriving here. Sana, the middle daughter, 12, giggles as she tells me how strange it feels to weave in and out of the different languages she speaks. Each one tends to carry a different personality, Sana explains. They all nod emphatically, and agree that Arabic is the more serious one — the language they primarily speak with their parents.
Nahlah is Shiite and her husband Sunni. This is actually not all that uncommon, they say — particularly in Baghdad, where they’re from. “Well, before the war, at least.” Within their own home, they’ve created a sort of cultural blend, combining both their heritages — something “unique and special to us and our family.”
Nahlah and her husband, Omar, met while studying French at the university. Nahlah, 28 at the time, jokes that when she told her father about him, he laughed and exclaimed, “Oh, I can’t wait to meet the man my daughter will finally accept!” Nahlah pauses as she counts on her fingers the five or six men she’d refused before Omar.
“Let me tell you something,” she says. “My husband, he can’t —” she pauses for a moment mulling her words. “If there are many people and we eat or drink something and it is very delicious, he can’t eat or drink these things alone. He needs to give to me or the girls first, and then together. We will share … do you see? He is this kind of person.”
When I meet Omar, he tells me about how the family left Iraq, where he’d built a home and ran a successful contracting business. His eyes appear heavy, burdened with fatigue, but the lines around them are playful. His name, distinctly Sunni, was incriminating, he says, and motivated them to leave Baghdad three years before fleeing Iraq entirely.
When I asked if this new city was safer, Omar said, “Well, not safer — everything is unstable — but in Samarra we at least had family. Anything bad that happened, for any of us, we had each other to support.”
From left to right: Yusur, Nahlah, Omar, Sana, and Malak.
In Samarra, the family lived off savings while Omar searched for employment. He says his focus was to keep his wife and daughters safe, and provide for them as normal a life as possible. He eventually found work as a municipal employee in the City Council. But even this became too dangerous, as Al-Qaeda, active at the time, attacked city council buildings with bombs “many, many times,” Omar says. He knew he couldn’t just stay there and wait to be killed. “I had a wife and three daughters to care for.” Shortly thereafter, the family left Iraq altogether and fled to Turkey. There they awaited refugee status, and eventually arrived here in Portland, Maine.
When asked about their lives in Maine, they only briefly touch upon the challenges they face, which to many (myself included) would feel mammoth. They spend more time, rather, in reflection of their gratitude at the opportunity to “search [for] a chance to live with peace [and] to work” here in Portland.
Nahlah excitedly shares with me her goal to one day teach in Portland Public Schools. They poke fun at how savvy Omar has become at bargain shopping. He laughs through tired eyes. “Everywhere I go I’m scanning, taking note always. And my shopping … everywhere! I collect everything from everywhere!” About Portland, they say, “we feel we are among friends and family here.” Nahlah then pauses, smiles, and continues “but really, it all began with In Her Presence.”
In Her Presence is where Penny and Nahlah’s lives first weave together. “Penny is the kind of woman who will not just ask you something and take your words only,” says Nahlah. “She will check you, she will watch you. She will listen carefully to be sure.”
Penny Carson has had a long history of social advocacy in Portland and upon retiring had researched many places to volunteer — Portland Adult Ed, LearningWorks and elsewhere. What appealed to her about In Her Presence was not only the fierce spirit of those who co-founded the organization, but the authentic inclusivity she witnessed. She thought it remarkable how comfortable and relaxed the women appeared, and how openly they shared their struggles, concerns, and ideas despite their different religious, cultural, or socioeconomic backgrounds. “I mean, these countries are at war with one another. And here in this room, these women from these very same countries are sitting among one another, talking and laughing together. I mean … I feel like it's the seeds of peace! It’s wonderful!”
The co-founders of In Her Presence, Claudette Ndayininahaze and Abusana "Micky" Bondo.
The organization In Her Presence was created by and for local Portland immigrant women with a mission to bring immigrant women together from across communities and generations to support their empowerment and personal ambitions without sacrificing unique cultural identities. “We wanted to create a space where women could build relationships that bridge diversity and difference to achieve success and a stronger voice within their communities,” says co-founder Claudette Ndayininahaze.
Claudette is from Burundi while fellow co-founder Abusana “Micky” Bondo from Congo. They tell me they see the difference in the cultural backgrounds they come from only strengthening their vision. “You know, we actually met at a beauty salon!” Micky tells me, laughing. They soon realized they had shared struggle and shared vision, and thus marked “the beginning of a strong sisterhood spirit” that’s unfolded in united passion and devotion.
Though Penny herself is not an immigrant, many of these women's stories resonate with her. Penny’s parents were first-generation immigrants from Greece. Her grandparents passed through Ellis Island and settled in Connecticut. Her grandfather worked at the Lowell textile mills in Massachusetts. She remembers as a child, her parents sharing stories with her about the shame they felt at not being able to speak English well in their schools. “I mean, these people are the same. It’s exactly the same,” she tells me.
Pennywas born and raised in Portland — born at the historic Portland Ear and Eye Infirmary in the 1940s, in fact. She’s been privy to the many changes the city has seen. “Portland used to be the only place anything was. It was all just small houses, farms, and fishermen.” Most recently, Portland’s seen a great increase in its immigrant population. “Immigrants were coming here,” she remarks “and I saw a need. It just feels right to be here,” she says.
Micky Bondo tells me that “an immigrant woman’s life can be compared to that of a newborn. When she moves to a new place, she has to start everything over. She must find an identity and restructure herself. It can feel like swimming without direction, often isolated from society. Knowing that a woman is often the pilot of the family, we wanted to create a platform where they can recreate a new sense of life, confidence and leadership — for all generations.”
“These classes teach me to be strong,” adds Nahlah. “They give me a confidence in myself. When I don't understand what [something] is or where I can go to do it, this class shows me.” Classes at In Her Presence meet every Saturday. Language courses are offered along with Health and Wellness courses. It also serves as a safe platform for women to bring their questions and concerns as they navigate new lives here in Portland.
Nahlah’s daughters from left to right: Sana, Yusur, and Malak. All three can speak Arabic, English, and Turkish.
When I ask Nahlah about her daughters, she beams. She describes in detail each one’s personalities, talents, and accomplishments. And what do you hope for them here? I ask. Without hesitation, she responds.
“I want all the time for them to choose — to be strong, and to choose their lives.” In Her Presence is one of the pioneering organizations here in Maine that will make this possible.
For more information on In Her Presence, including how to volunteer, visit http://inherpresence.wixsite.com