For the Ajhami family, ethnic Albanians who had been driven from their home in Kosovo, coming to Portland, Maine after two months in a refugee camp in Macedonia must have seemed strange indeed. Here they were, facing American cameras and American questions after a long and exhausting ordeal, but still happy at last to have found a bit of peace.
"I think America for them represents safety and security...thatÂ's what they come here for," says Sandy Hollett, director of operations at Catholic Charities of Maine, which has helped more than 5,000 refugees find new homes in the past 20 years.
"The faces of Kosavar refugees that we are seeing on the news every day certainly represent the experiences we do see with all refugees," she says.
Florence Olebe came to Portland last September with five of her seven sons to escape war in her home country of Sudan. The winter in Maine was a big surprise to her.
"At the beginning, when I first came here, it was not easy because when we came it was winter, which was really something new for me," she says.
Life certainly is not easy for Florence Olebe, or for any refugees. Fortunately however, there are good people like Gus Barber in Portland to smooth the road a bit. It was his idea to start the English classes at Barber Foods.
The students at Barber Foods are also employees, using their lunch hours to learn English. The lessons are free, and so are computer and math courses. In fact, each employee receives $200 for every class they complete.
Gus Barber knows first hand what itÂ's like to try to make a living in a new country. He himself is the son of an Armenian immigrant.
"It was difficult to be an Armenian, or Greek, or Italian, whatever it was, people made fun of us," says Barber. "You had to forget it, and do the best you could. We had to work harder, and we had to work smarter, which we did."
The employees of Barber Foods work hard, making stuffed chicken breasts, or boxing chicken tenders. These are not glamorous jobs, but they are good jobs with good pay, benefits, and incentives for advancement.
"I worked hard. I dreamed hard. And, IÂ'm willing to help other people. ThatÂ's all I want to do, make this world a better place to live in," Barber continues. "IÂ'm an ordinary person, I havenÂ't done anything great. IÂ've done things that my conscience tell me what to do. And I do it."
The faces on the assembly line are from every corner of the world, particularly those corners where there is ar and strife, like Uganda, Somalia, Sudan, Bosnia, Russia, China, Cambodia, and Vietnam. And their faces are changing the face of Portland itself, where being foreign used to mean you were from New Hampshire.
Most of the workers on the assembly line could tell you a story of the long and difficult road that brought them to Portland.
"Back in our country, we donÂ't have freedom, anybody have no freedom. No freedom of religion, no freedom of anything. You just be quiet. But here, if you want to work, you can work," says employee Congress Alari, who migrated from Sudan. He writes letters home to his parents, telling them how beautiful it is in the United States.
"I tell them everything very nice, told them about Maine, write to them about Maine," says Alari.
Yao Binamou has worked his way up to supervisor on the line after four years at Barber Foods. He had to leave his family behind on the Ivory Coast to come to America.
"I miss my family, I tell them I miss them, IÂ'm going to bring them over one day," says Bnamou. "I have political problem in my country, thatÂ's why I came over. I donÂ't want to lose my life."
It is hard for many Americans to imagine leaving family and home to take a chance on a strange, new land, and most of the refugees in Portland say they wouldnÂ't leave either, if they had a choice in the first place.
Lonida Bradonic was reluctant to leave her parents and her native city of Sarajevo, but sheÂ's thinking about the future for her two sons.
"I want to forget war, I want to live a new life. IÂ'm happy over here," says Lonida. "IÂ'm with my sister and her family, with her sons, my kids are enjoying America, IÂ'm happy, really."
LonidaÂ's sister Dragona and her brother Sad are also employees of Barber Foods, but they dream of starting their own business some day soon, just like Gus Barber.
"In one year, IÂ'm going to be a citizen," says Sad. "We bought a house. If youÂ're not optimistic thereÂ's no reason to come to the United States. Believe me, itÂ's a hard country for living, but you have chance, opportunity."
Maine summer visitors often encounter the slogan, Maine, The Way Life Should Be. So our hope for these refugees and immigrants on this Fourth of July is that they would find their new life to be a good life, the way life should be.