PORTLAND, Maine — From the floor of Congress to the sidewalks of Congress Street, immigration issues have been debated a lot in recent years. But in Maine, like America as a whole, it’s nothing new. People “from away” have been joining the native Wabanakis here for at least 400 years.
That’s the premise of a new exhibition of photos and artifacts at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, which seeks to tell some of the stories of people who have come to the state from other countries.
To do that, the exhibit, called “400 Years of New Mainers,” combines vintage images and stories of Maine immigrants from the MHS collection with more contemporary photos and accounts recorded by photographer Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest and Pat Nyhan in their book “New Mainers.”
“The arrival of the Iraqis, Syrians, the Sudanese, Somalis, is really a natural continuation of something that began 400 years ago,” said co-curator Reza Jalali, coordinator of multicultural student affairs at the University of Southern Maine.
Here are some of the stories of new Mainers found in the collection:
— Sarah Unobsky, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, raised three sons and ran a clothing store in Calais in the early 20th century after her husband Joseph died. Unobsky eventually founded a synagogue named for her late husband and demanded her suppliers from New York come to Calais to sign contracts in order to have a minyan — or a Judaic quorum — for services.
— Anthony Petropulos came to the U.S. from Greece and, in 1915, he toured New England, speaking about the struggle for freedom in his homeland. While visiting Lewiston, he decided to stay. He became a police officer and served on the force for 30 years.
— Toy Len Goon and her husband Dogon Goon were from China. They ran a laundry at Woodfords corner in Portland from the 1920s through the 1940s. Dogon served in the U.S. Army during World War I. Toy raised eight children after Dogon died in 1941, sending them all to college. She was named “United States Mother of the Year” by the American Mothers Committee of the Golden Rule Foundation in 1952.
— Khadija Guled was a teenager when she arrived in Portland in 1994, fleeing clan violence in Somalia. She started taking general education classes at Portland High School after just one year of ESL studies. She graduated from the University of Southern Maine’s social work program in 2004 and became a case manager at the Community Counseling Center a year later. Guled uses her own experiences as a refugee to help other new Mainers find their footing.
— Hooria Majeed, a nurse, lived in Kabul, Afghanistan with her children and husband, a well-known artist. When the Taliban proclaimed her husband’s work un-Islamic and murdered him, she fled with her children and arrived in Maine in 2002. Since then, she’s created a new life for herself and her three sons, becoming a chef and an in-demand caterer.
— Kim and Van Luu met as teenagers in their native Vietnam. Both their families came to the United States in the early 1990s. Kim settled in Des Moines and Van in Philadelphia, but they never lost touch. They eventually married, had children and, in 1999, started a successful floor-refinishing business in Portland. Since then, at least six more Vietnamese-American owned flooring operations have opened in town.
“400 Years of New Mainers” opens Friday, Feb. 5, 2016 at 5 p.m. at the Maine Historical Society, 489 Congress Street, Portland, Maine. After that, it will be open to the public through April 2 during regular museum hours.