Increasing Diversity in Portland, Maine

July 30, 2000

Source: The Boston Globe

On July 30, 2000, The Boston Globe published an article entitled "A City's Changing Face Aided by Program to House Refugees; Immigrants Bring Ethnic Diversity, New Challenges, to Portland, Maine." Albert T. Chamblerain, property manager at the low-income housing development Riverton Park, explained that while "Once a thoroughly white city in the country's second whitest state, Portland is on its way to becoming a miniature 'United Nations.'" While Census data has yet to be released, it is clear that Portland has changed dramatically in just a short time. "In fact, it's hard to imagine another place in the United States that has changed more quickly, or in a more unlikely way. It's not just that diversity has increased. It's that Portland's mix has been assembled by so many relatively small pockets of ethnic groups...Prompted by a strong refugee resettlement program, communities of people from most of the world's troubled nations have sprouted out of nowhere. They've gone on to put down solid roots in the largest city of a state whose complexion has otherwise changed little in the last decade...Around the city, English mixes with Khmer, Vietnamese, and Serbo-Croatian.

"Behind the burst of immigration is Catholic Charities Maine, a nonprofit organization that has resettled 4,000 to 5,000 refugees in Portland in the past 20 years. All were fleeing persecution. Every state in the country, by law, has a refugee resettlement program, but Maine's is different." One of the most significant differences is that, "Almost all the refugees have been settled in one city, rather than scattered around the state. And Portland, population 62,500, is small enough that newcomers are not swallowed up as they would be in a New York or a Los Angeles, or even a Boston. Their presence is felt. Perhaps the biggest difference is that many resettlement programs work with refugees from only one nation or region of the world, said Matthew P. Ward, director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities Maine. His group, however, takes them all. So no one immigrant group dominates. Refugees who have settled in Maine, however, make up only about 30 percent of the immigrant population, Ward said. The rest are secondary immigrants, first settled elsewhere in the United States, who chose to come to Portland because they heard through the grapevine that it is a safe city with a good economy.

"'Maine is good, it's peace,' said Mohamud Barre, 40, a respected elder in the Somali community who publishes a Somali newsletter in addition to working an overnight shift at the post office. 'People say they are moving here' because 'a friend tells me it's good, it's quiet...' That doesn't mean it's always easy, though, given Maine's reticence and the quirks of Yankee hospitality, said Tae Chong, who immigrated to Maine from Korea in 1976, and who was one of the first Asians in the state. 'This is an interesting place,' said Chong, 31, a civilian outreach worker working for the Police Department. 'It doesn't really matter what color you are. If you're from away, you're from away. They pretty much leave you alone.'"