Her refugee experience helped Moon find poetry, healing, and a passion for helping others.
“You’re probably wondering how a person as black as myself came to live in a place as white as this,” says Moon Machar at the beginning of “I Come From Away: An Immigrant in Maine,” the documentary from Emmy-winning director, producer, and writer Charles Stuart. The film uses her story of healing and activism as a lens into the immigrant community of Portland, Maine.
Born in South Sudan, Moon arrived in Portland in 1995, a wide-eyed five-year-old catching her first glimpses of a strange new land. It was nothing like the refugee camp she had called home in Ethiopia. Even the words people spoke were strange. For her and her family, Portland represented hope for security and a new life, but they would also face cultural barriers and issues of racism that are often foreign to newcomers.
Moon’s father, Peter Machar, had been a child soldier and grew up as a fighter in the military, which was considered a position of respect. He later fled the country’s civil war to Ethiopia, where he lived in a refugee camp. Here, he met Moon’s mother, an Ethiopian woman who worked in the camp as a cook and interpreter. They married and soon a baby was on the way. But their lives were still in danger. “My father’s last name identified him as someone to be targeted by enemies in Sudan.” Following the U.S. Refugee Program’s long vetting process, Moon and her family emigrated to Portland.
Today, Moon is a self-described spoken word poet, army veteran, and activist for refugees and asylum seekers. She serves as a cultural representative for Disability Rights Maine and is recipient of the Rising Advocate award from the Bazelon Center in Washington DC and the Diaspora Award from the Luol Deng foundation, which recognized her for her advocacy work around South Sudan. In Portland, Moon works as a wellness partner for MANA, the Maine Association for New Americans. In this position, she helps asylum seekers, especially children, who need pathways to mental health services and safe spaces where they can speak about past and present traumas.
But for all her accomplishments, the journey has not been easy. Maine has been called the whitest state in America. Moon attended the Cathedral School in Portland, where she was the only student of color. She spoke little English, and there was no ESL instruction. So she picked up English just by observing and listening to others.
Moon was not aware of the long history of stigmas and prejudices about Black Americans in the U.S. She knew none of the history of slavery, Jim Crow apartheid, or the civil rights movement. “When kids called me a n****r, I didn’t understand, which made them angrier, and they called me more vile terms. I had to ask my mother what it all meant. It was an eye-opener.”
“I had to learn what “black” means in America,” she recalls, “and the different meanings of things. Some words and terms were racist slurs. Yet others terms could seem like slurs but weren’t. So there was confusion as well as anger and embarrassment.” But there was also a positive outcome. Moon credits this experience with developing her interest in language and the meanings of words and phrases, which helped her become a poet.
Even as they experienced racism, Moon and her family found kindness and acceptance. As she told Barbara Walsh of The Maine Monitor last year, she and her family are grateful for Catholic Charities, which helped them find housing, and for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception parish, which offered support and love. “We were very warmly received by that parish and by the whole community.”
After graduating from high school, Moon joined the U.S. Army in 2007. The September 11 attacks had a big impact on her, and she joined to honor her father. “He had gone through so much at the hands of Islamic extremists and saw so much violence.” Serving in the Army was her way to take action against the extremism that hurt her father.
With her five-year tour complete, Moon returned to Portland in 2012 determined to make a life helping and advocating for refugees and immigrants. As she knows so well, integrating into a new and foreign community can be difficult and frightening. The journey toward integration is much easier when the host community actively creates opportunities for welcoming. Moon has been a passionate voice for welcoming and serving for more than a decade.
Portland’s welcoming reputation was put to the test in June 2019 when hundreds of asylum seekers arrived with little notice, taxing the city’s capacity to help them. Most had fled the death, violence, and stark poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. As tensions grew, Moon worked with other community leaders to assist the newcomers, defuse the situation, and strengthen Portland’s standing as a welcoming city.
This wave of newcomers provides the setting for Moon’s story in “I Come From Away,” which will be screened at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, REACH on August 11. Attendees can hear and meet Moon and director Stuart at a pre-screening discussion. The event is free and open to the public, but an RSVP is preferred by August 9.
The title of the film is taken from the title of one of her poems, which she recites at the end of the film. As she wonders about the people she will meet in her new home, three separate lines especially convey the longing and melancholy of the immigrant experience.
Will they accept a pilgrim who has ventured so far from her home? … Would they usher me to places that again make me feel whole? … Or maybe they would dance in jubilee by the song that my ancestors sing?
Poetry has become an essential part of Moon’s life. “Art is an incredible way to connect with the human soul. My poetry captures the rhythm of my life and journey.”
When asked about the main message of the film, Moon replied, “It’s so dangerous to generalize about another human being, or define them by what you believe a refugee or immigrant to be. Every person has their own story and challenges they have faced.”
To everyone who attends the film, she asks: “Now that you have seen what is going on with your new neighbors, what kind of welcome do you want them to have? What kind of welcome will you help provide them? Will you live your new understanding?”