DIXFIELD – Ryan Lafleur realized Monday afternoon how fortunate he and his classmates are to be living in a corner of Maine after learning about some of the terrible events people from other parts of the world have been through.

Lafleur, and most of the students at Dirigo High School, took part in the district’s annual Diversity Day. He and others had a chance to listen to nearly a dozen Portland High School refugee students from Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda who told about their lives, and how they made it to Maine.

Lafleur was also surprised at just how much Western Maine and African students are alike.

“Everybody has different backgrounds,” said the sophomore. “But they are like us. They hang out with their friends, they get onto MySpace.”

The annual Diversity Day is a chance for local students to learn about other cultures, religions, social perspectives and other things going on in the world.

Bri Janke, a senior and one of the Dirigo High School students who, with staff member Norman Greenberg, helped organize the day, said a chance to meet and talk with people different from themselves teaches that there is more out there than Dixfield.

Marina Slover, a junior, said Diversity Days will help her with her planned career in communications.

“This gives us insight,” she said.

Tom Talarico, one of eight or nine teachers of English as a second language at Portland High School, said nearly 400 students speak dozens of languages at his school.

A half dozen or so of those languages were represented by the Portland students who attended Diversity Day.

Abdullahi Hassan, a 16-year-old from Somalia, has a dozen sisters and brothers scattered over the world. He already knows English, his Somalian dialect, and is studying French. Lily Lobor, a Sudanese refugee, speaks four languages, including Arabic. She hopes to go to the University of Southern Maine next year to study nursing.

Many of the refugee students didn’t come directly to Maine from their native lands, but instead spent months or years in other countries, particularly Kenya, trying to get to the United States. Others spent time in Saudi Arabia or Egypt before coming here, usually because of civil war in their native lands.

Sadam Sharif Isaack spent three months in Virginia before his family moved to Maine because fellow Somalis had settled here. Only a handful of nations welcome permanent residents from refugee populations, said Talarico. Besides the United States, Canada, Australia, England, Sweden, Switzerland and Belgium allow war refugees to settle in their countries.

While Dirigo High School isn’t as diverse as Portland High School, Talarico said diversity does exist. Dirigo students said native American and Hispanics attend their school, and many have grandparents who emigrated to the area from France, Ireland or Italy, or elsewhere.

Besides the Portland students’ presentation, Dirigo students had a chance to participate in four other presentations from more than two dozen offerings held throughout the day.

Lafleur had already participated in workshops on karate and wheelchair basketball, and was heading to a discussion on Buddhism before he, along with the rest of the student body, listened to a world music performance by Shamou, an Iranian musician.

After talking with the refugee students, junior Jazmine Brooks said she’d like to go to Portland to meet other people.

The fifth annual Diversity Day was the most successful yet, said Greenberg. At least 75 percent of local students took advantage of the chance to learn about people and ideas different from theirs.

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