This blog post was written by our Executive Director, Claire Berkowitz, in response to the recent remarks made by prominent figures and policymakers regarding the Syrian refugee crisis in the aftermath of the horrendous Paris attacks.
When guests arrived at our Giraffe Awards celebration last month, they were greeted by music from the Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus, a youth singing group made up of young voices from diverse backgrounds. Many of the young women come from areas of conflict, violence and other tragedies and have made a new home with their families in Portland. Under the direction of Con Fullam, these young women lift their voices and sing to celebrate and remind us of our common humanity.
“War-torn villages, bloodshed, refugee camps, famine, and political turmoil were devastating realities for many of these young singers before being embraced by the warmth, companionship and harmony that Pihcintu provides.”
In her keynote address, author Maria Padian talked about her role as a young adult fiction writer, drawing inspiration from kids and getting their stories right. Her most recent novel, Out of Nowhere, was inspired by real events and people in Lewiston. She impressed upon the crowd how despite all odds, children can become unlikely champions for themselves and others.
As the choir sang and Maria spoke, the Lewiston High School soccer team won a critical play-off game across the street. The juxtaposition of these events was a plot point that could only exist in the movies. However, the soccer team made up of youth from six different countries went on to win the 2015 Class A State Championship.
A former Lewiston High student is currently producing a film that tells the story of how the winning team was created. In the trailer for the film, Coach Mike McGraw tells the story of when he noticed the Somali players and American players getting ready in two separate locations. He brought them together and said:
“This is how a team plays. This is how I want you to be on the field and off the field. Together.”
As a state, we simply cannot turn our backs on Syrian refugees, especially when 50 percent are children. What if we had turned our backs on some of the singers in the Pihcintu Chorus or some of the players on the Lewiston soccer team? Maine would be lacking in the incredible gifts of these young people who contribute so much to the fabric of their communities and our state.
We cannot let fear get in the way of our compassion. The fact is that refugees are already subject to the highest levels of security screenings of anyone traveling to the United States so this fear is very misplaced.
Between 2007 and 2012, the child population of Maine declined by 13,549 (279,467 vs. 265,918). At a recent town hall meeting in Lewiston, Governor LePage spoke about the need to attract “young, growing families to Maine,” the state with the highest median age in the country. We should also listen closely to the words of Governor Inslee of Washinton and welcome Syrian children and their families who have slept too long on beds that bring them no rest. To do so is not just an act of compassion, but an investment in the future of our state.
We need to cultivate and nurture young people to reach their full potential so that they can become the future doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business owners. Right now, we don’t have enough young people in our midst to replace the aging workforce. Remember that story about not having a plumber in Jackman? That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Mainers have a long tradition of working together to solve tough problems. And we know that even in difficult times we must make decisions that will benefit us in the long term. We have welcomed the children of Somalia, Sudan, Cambodia, Uganda and many other countries to Maine. Our communities are more vibrant and enriched because of our openness to immigrants and refugees. The Pichintu Chorus and the Lewiston High School soccer teams are two shining examples. So, let’s all be giraffes and “stick our necks out” for the children of the world, for the children of Syria, and embrace them when they arrive to the United States.