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"Dear Maine" Nine Months Later

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

Dear Maine was released in December 2021 to an outpouring of support. The book, written by Morgan Rielly and Reza Jalali, recounts the trials and triumphs of twenty immigrants who have arrived in Maine within the past few decades—from a refugee turned public figure to a prisoner-of-war channeling his experiences through art. Now, several months later, we had the opportunity to catch up with two of the people profiled in Dear Maine, as well as the book’s Armenian photographer, Lilit Danielyan. We asked them to reflect on their involvement in the project as well as what’s been going on in their lives since the book's publication.


Chanbopha Himm

Chanbopha Himm, better known as Chan, is Chinese-Cambodian, but she was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Her parents both grew up in Cambodia—her dad on his family’s farm and her mom as a dancer for the royal court—but after the rise of the Khmer Rouge, an extreme militant group, they fled to Thailand in 1978. In 1983, through a combination of luck and family connections, Chan and her family immigrated to the United States to join her brother in Massachusetts.

Although Chan and her family were grateful to be in America, the first few years in Massachusetts were difficult. Chan’s parents spoke little English and struggled to find work with no college education. Chan herself struggled with English in grade school and had to learn to balance her Cambodian and American identities. Her father was insistent that his family retain their Cambodian heritage, often cooking large meals for his relatives. He passed Cambodian and Chinese traditions down to his children. It took many years before Chan fully appreciated his efforts.

After graduating high school, Chan married and moved to Portland to live with her new husband. In addition to finding a job and supporting her growing family, Chan also sought to find ways to help other Cambodians in the United States. This led her to create the Cambodian Community Association of Maine (CCAM) with Marpheen Chann, another Mainer with Cambodian roots and author of Moon In Full. During the COVID-19 crisis, the CCAM raised money to create care packages for members of the Cambodian community. The organization gave Chan the opportunity to pass along the culture and traditions her father passed to her, to her two children, and the community.

This past April, Chan received the Courage is Contagious Award from the University of Maine School of Law. She said she is deeply humbled and honored to have her dedication and passion recognized by the Justice for Women and the University of Maine. However, she notes that this undertaking cannot be done by one woman alone. Chan believes empowering women is about appreciating their decisions, encouraging their thoughts, and educating them on their right to influence social change. “Instead of limiting each other’s access, silencing each other’s voices, and competing against one another,” Chan explains, “we must lead by listening and seeking to understand each other’s differences, cultures, beliefs, and traditions.” She is especially happy to be an example for her children, Nathan and Natalie. She wants them and all the kids in her life to know that women are powerful and should be “celebrated for their courage to speak their truths.”

Reflecting on Dear Maine, Chan says she was a little nervous to have her story out there, but overall was excited to share it. She hopes her story has shown readers that anything is possible if you believe in yourself, trust others, and value lessons learned. And she hopes that reading her story has made someone feel a little less alone.

“Be humble, and grateful for any opportunity given.” Chan says, “It’s okay to make mistakes but learn from them. For each error, start a routine of healing yourself. Not all stories are happy, but there are stories of tears, struggles, pain, and loss. There is no great reward without significant risk and the willingness to make a change, but this can only start with you. You are the only one that can change your story. Stand up, and voice for what you truly believe in. Never settle for anything.”


Kifah Abdulla

Kifah Abdulla came to Maine in 2011 as a refugee. In Dear Maine, he describes growing up in Baghdad, Iraq in the 1970s—a time he calls Iraq’s short lived “Golden Age” before the presidency of Saddam Hussein and the Iraq-Iran war. Despite being a pacifist and seeing the war as one of “media and propaganda,” Kifah was drafted in 1980. His unit was eventually ambushed and, while Kifah managed to escape, he became lost in the desert, fighting hunger, thirst, heat, wild animals, and the ever-present threat of the Iranian military. After five days, Kifah mistakenly entered an Iranian military camp where he was captured and held as a prisoner of war.

Kifah was a POW for eight years and three months, enduring hardships most of us couldn’t imagine. He was released in 1990, two years after the war ended, and tried to resume a normal life in Baghdad. However, after years of surveillance and fearing for his safety, he fled to Jordan. From Jordan, he sought asylum in Holland, and from Holland he moved to America to join his family. Kifah has now lived in America for over a decade and became a United States citizen in 2016. He is based in Portland where he teaches Arabic and calligraphy, paints, and writes poetry. He is also a community activist, working to promote peace and unity through art.