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, 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 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.
This is evident in his most recent series, “Rebel: Take Action,” which combines his experimental art with environmental activism through the use of unconventional materials such as used car tires and discarded plastic. Through his art, Kifah wants us to see environmental issues and think critically about them. In addition to bringing awareness to these issues, he also wants to inspire people to take action. As he says, “Without the right action, change will never happen.”
In a similar vein, Kifah has recently partnered with Bowdoin College and the New England Arab American Organization (NEAAO) on their “Trash to Treasure” initiative, in which students gather trash from cleanup initiatives and their own homes to repurpose it—with the help of Kifah—as a series of art pieces that will be displayed at Bowdoin.
Kifah also brings his art into the community. He has been a Play Assistant at the Children’s Museum and Theater of Maine since June 2021 where he encourages visitors of all ages to start making art. He enjoys working with children on the museum’s mural project. The mural is composed of pieces of paper hung on a mobile whiteboard in the lobby, and visiting children use colored pencils and markers to create and add their own sketches. It’s an especially popular activity when parents are in the check-in line.
Regarding his participation in the Dear Maine project, Kifah says he’s happy the audience was able to get a sense of who he is and what he does. He hopes people see his story as one of resilience and persistence, and that it inspires people to not give up on the journey of life. “It’s my story,” he said, “perhaps it will help others be optimistic.”
Lilit Danielyan is an award winning photographer, published artist-photographer, and full-time student. Though she’s been in the United States for ten years, her life began far away from where she now resides.
Lilit was born in Armenia during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war but grew up in Central Kazakhstan, where her family moved shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was here that Lilit’s journey as a photographer began. Her first camera was a Soviet-made Zenit that she used to capture images and narratives of her family, their villages, and the world around them in the aftermath of the conflicts. She immigrated to the United States alone in 2012, seeking to further her education.
Since 2015, Danielyan has been working on documentary photography projects shot between Kazakhstan, Armenia, and America, that explore the subjects of identity, belonging, and nostalgia. In 2018, she became a Sam Abell Endowed Scholarship recipient at the Maine Media Workshops + College. Danielyan is also a member of the 2022 Women Photograph Mentorship Class, which pairs photographers early in their careers with industry professionals.
Lilit’s most recent documentary project, Along Closed Borders, depicts everyday life in rural Armenia, along the closed borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey. She wanted to capture the lives of the residents there, who have lived through two wars. On her website, Lilit provides context for the project, explaining that “living close to the border is first and foremost anxiety and daily worry … Cement fences are built around schools. Portraits of fallen soldiers, most of them eighteen-year-old boys, hang in the hallways.”
She continues,“the proximity of closed borders, however, is also about community. Summer camps and outdoor dance parties are held for children. I saw neighbors support and care for each other, as well as help with building memorials for families who lost their loved ones.” The photos and videos she captured during her short stay in Armenia articulate the complexities of life for those residing near the hostile borders. Along Closed Borders won the Excellence Award in the documentary category at the 2021 International College Photographer of the Year Competition.
Currently, Lilit is an Ada Comstock Scholar at Smith College studying psychology. She appreciates the intersection of photography and psychology, as they both attempt to connect more deeply with people and their stories. Another recent project of hers also achieved this. Student Mothers followed two of her classmates who have children as they navigate balancing parenting with their college studies.
Lilit plans to graduate this December, and will spend her last semester studying abroad at the Prague Film School in the Czech Republic. She is excited to expand her craft through a formal film education. After graduation, Lilit hopes to apply for the Magic Grant through Smith College to fund the creation of an independent film in Armenia.