These are anxious times for Maine’s growing immigrant population.

Many of them are uncomfortable expressing an opinion about the war in Iraq for fear it will be misinterpreted, whether or not they support President Bush’s decision to use force to oust Saddam Hussein.

Some are even frightened.

“Only a few people go to the mosque now because they are worried. They are scared,” said N. Ali Ismail, a Somali native who works as a teacher’s aide and language facilitator at Portland High School.

Wartime has historically been difficult for new immigrants in America, and few can forget the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II. Refugees and immigrants in Portland have not been detained, and say they have not experienced anti-Muslim harassment in their neighborhoods and communities during the war.

But for numerous reasons, many feel isolated and at-risk. And few are willing to talk about it.

“It’s politics. I tried to run away (from talking about the war) as much as I can. For me, there is nothing to say. Everything is upside down,” said Imam Talal Eid of the Islamic Center of New England.

Adult refugees commonly say that speaking about politics right now and potentially being misunderstood can only get them in trouble, perhaps harassed and even arrested.

“If I said I’m against the war then people will say I know you are anti-American. The concern we have is the wrong interpretation of anything we say. There is no freedom of speech here. People right away will stereotype me,” Eid said.

Younger refugees are often more open to talking about the war. Seventeen-year-old Hamida Suja says freedom of speech is alive and well at Portland High School, where students from around the world speak about 50 languages.

“The teacher gives time for students to disagree with each other,” she said. “You can say anything.”

Although there is little disagreement that Saddam needs to go, opinions about the war are as diverse as the student body. Some students, both native Mainers and foreign-born, joined protests and made anti-war signs after school. Many others, including students who arrived here after their families fled from war, expressed support for the war.

For Suja, seeing coverage of the war brought back memories of when she was 6 years old in Mogadishu, Somalia. She saw many dead people, including a neighbor who was killed when a rocket blew up the house next door.

“War is not good at any point, because of personal experience that I had,” Suja said. “Because of that.”

But, she added, not all Somalis have the same view. “I know some students from my country that are for the war,” she said.

Many new immigrants have become well-attuned to the sensitive political atmosphere in the United States in which opponents of the war can be accused of aiding the enemy and demoralizing the troops.

If white movie stars and rock-and-roll singers are ostracized for opposing war, immigrants say, what would happen to a Muslim immigrant with an accent, an Arabic name or a green card?

It’s troubling to find fear and insecurity in a place where people came to be safe and free, N. Ali Ismail said.

“If you are opposed to the war, you are considered as though you don’t love your country,” he said. “I’ve never seen that before.”

AP-ES-04-21-03 1039EDT


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