PORTLAND, Maine — Reza Jalali came from Iran to live in Maine 37 years ago and cannot remember a hotter, dryer summer here than this one.
“I’m worried for my children,” said the father of two and executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, a collaborative hub helping newcomers with language and economic integration, as well as civic engagement.
That’s why Jalali is helping launch a new initiative aimed at bringing youthful climate change activists together with young, new Mainers. He wants to help forge energized bridges between them — alliances that just might save the planet.
“By energizing the youth, we hope to help them feel responsible for the future,” Jalali said. “My hope is that they will be able to fix the problem where we have failed. I hope it’s not too late.”
To that end, Jalali is teaming up with The Climate Initiative, a non-partisan, science-based organization based in Kennebunkport, in putting on a kickoff event during the city’s monthly art walk on Friday. The nationally active organization’s mission is to empower youth to do something about the planet’s climate future.
The Celebration of New Mainers and Climate Action starts at 5 p.m. in Congress Square and will feature guest speakers and live music. It’s meant as a fun party mixer, introducing activists and new Mainers to each other. More events between the two organizations will follow in the future.
“It’s not a protest or a march,” said the Initiative’s executive director Jono Anzalone. “It’s something positive.”
Jalali said climate change is common ground for both young native Mainers as well as new ones. The planet’s future, in both a local and global sense, belongs to both of them. It’s a perfect backdrop for collaboration.
“That’s where immigration and climate change meet,” he said.
After all, the warming planet is what’s driven many new Mainers to leave their original homes and come here.
“Now, along with political and economic refugees, we have climate refugees,” Jalali said. “Even the Syrian civil war has some roots in climate change,” Jalali said.
Rapper Zakaria Allaf, better known as Assasi, fled Syria near the start of the civil war in 2012. After a harrowing, years-long international saga, he finally settled in Maine in 2016.
Assasi, who lives and works in Biddeford, will perform at Friday’s kickoff.
Because he raps in Arabic and English, Assasi said he feels a responsibility to show up for events like these. He knows he can help bridge the gap between Mainers born here and those who’ve come more recently
“I want to be part of a noble event like this, to represent my culture and all the Syrian farmers who lost their farms,” Assasi said. “It’s good to have my name attached to this.”
In 2021, German international media company Deutsche Welle reported that after a six-year drought, starting in 2006, around 800,000 Syrians lost their incomes and 85 percent of the country’s livestock died.
That forced about 1.5 million country folk into the cities in search of work that didn’t exist, causing major civil unrest.
“Those who stayed were mainly impoverished farmers who became easy targets for terrorist recruiters from groups like the so-called Islamic State,” Deutsche Welle reported.
Jalali and Anzalone think it’s only a matter of time before climate change also displaces people within the United States. They foresee poor Texans and Floridians coming here in droves from their hot, underwater and storm-ravaged hometowns.
Those Americans on the move will likely be poor and people of color — just like most new Mainers who come here from other countries, Jalali said.
“Climate change affects lower income Americans and Black, indigenous people of color more than anyone else,” he said. “Wealthy people just collect the insurance and move onto somewhere else. Lower income people don’t have that privilege.”
Despite those dire visions and predictions, the pair think there’s still hope. That’s why they’re working together, now, for the future.
For now, Anzalone is staying positive and focussed on the kickoff, while planning grant applications for future collaborations with the welcome center.
“This is a milestone about celebrating new Mainer voices and the intersection of internally displaced people and people on the move,” he said. “This is just the first step in a larger conversation.”