For Lamees Hanna, living in Hampden is like inhabiting a world of contradictions. Although Hanna, an Iraqi-born mother of two, has lived in the United States for 29 years, she still grapples with the process of acculturating to life in America and dealing with outside perceptions.
“Many people want to know if we eat pork in my family,” she said. “Oftentimes, they don’t know that there are Christians in the Middle East.”
Hanna and her husband, an Egyptian-born doctor who grew up in a minority Christian family in Egypt, have lived in Maine for the last eight years. The couple says they love Maine for its safety and the open-mindedness of the people here.
As an immigrant family, perhaps their appreciation for Maine differs slightly from most newcomers and tourists who are seduced by the state’s natural beauty and rustic charm.
The journey of Hanna’s family began when her father left Iraq as a young man to study statistics at the University of North Carolina. While earning his doctorate in America, he met Hanna’s mother, a young American philosophy student. The two fell in love and, after graduation, flew to Germany and drove to Baghdad in an old Volkswagen.
“My father’s family was very accepting of my mother even though she was Christian and he was Muslim,” said Hanna. “Iraq was a very different place then,” she added.
Hanna’s parents lived in Baghdad for thirteen years while her father taught at a university and the couple had three children. During Hanna’s childhood, Iraq was a flourishing country where different religious groups were openly accepted and great efforts were made to educate its citizens.
“I have pictures of my father with his students,” Hanna said. “Half of the students were women who wore sleeveless shirts and didn’t cover their heads.”
“In Iraq, my mom openly celebrated Christmas,” she said. “People there loved the tradition of a Christmas tree and Santa Claus. Back then, Iraqis tried to find a common ground instead of looking at differences.”
All that changed in the late 1970’s when Saddam Hussein came to power. Lively debates with friends had characterized the atmosphere of Hanna’s house. Suddenly, these gatherings ended. Hanna remembers that, at this time, military officers began coming to schools and bribing children with candy to make them admit what their parents thought of Saddam.
In 1981, Hanna’s mother fled to Jordan with her three children under the pretenses that they were going on vacation. They then escaped to America where Hanna’s father later joined them.
“My parents decided that they didn’t want to live in a society where you could no longer have conversations of any depth,” Hanna said. “So we went to America.”
Adapting to the English language and American culture was a tough transition for Hanna and her siblings. But Hanna studied hard, graduated college, and eventually moved to Massachusetts where she met her future husband. The couple moved to Maine when Hanna’s husband accepted a job at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
The differences between Maine and the Middle East continue to amaze the young couple. They see America as a place where the government doesn’t intimidate those who live here, and, in turn, encourages its citizens to be active members of society.
Hanna takes full advantage of this belief. In addition to raising her family, she regularly volunteers with Literacy Volunteers of Bangor where she tutors area immigrants.
“I see myself in my students when they pause or are afraid of making a mistake,” she said. “I tutored one woman from Pakistan and remain on-call if she needs help. It has been amazing to watch her progress to the point where she can do things like negotiate the price of getting her driveway plowed with a local.”
“America has so much to offer,” said Hanna. “We love how you really can make a difference here.”