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Chechen visitors find hospitality, accessibility and business opportunities in Maine

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BANGOR - There are many differences between Maine and Chechnya, but a group of Chechnya citizens who recently visited the state believe they can take what they've learned here and share it with their country.

"I've seen and heard Maine is not the wealthiest state in the U.S., but we've met all kinds of people like politicians and farmers who work hard every day," said Zarman Amkhatovna Makhadzhiyeva, a coordinator for a human rights organization in Chechnya.

The group spent a week in Maine visiting businesses, law makers, the University of Maine at Augusta and other organizations as part of the Open World Program, a U.S. exchange program for countries of the post-Soviet era that began in 1999.

"Over 15,000 Russians have come over to the U.S. [through this program]. They try to establish business relationships and partnerships," said Andrey Fink, the group's facilitator. "We visited Living Nutz and they made a business offer to the owner to establish a partnership. He was happy because the Russian market is huge [and is well known for its nuts] so it's a great opportunity for both parties."

The three Chechen visitors were surprised to discover their image or stereotypical view of Americans was wrong.

"When I first met Americans, I thought they had artificial smiles, but I was wrong," explained Makhadzhiyeva. "We met a U.S. Marshal and he was a normal person and so accessible to us."

Accessibility is a rarity for Chechen journalists like 37-year-old Aslan Lechiyevich Ismailov.

"Officials don't like us [journalists] much. We have to be careful what we say about them," he explained. "It's dangerous to be a journalist in the Chechen Republic. You could be killed not necessarily by the government but by criminals [you're writing about]."

However, Ismailov is looking forward to reporting about his time spent in Maine with his Chechen audience.

"The two things I will remember most is I want to tell people about the volunteer network that is here for the poor and the second thing is I need to learn English," explained Ismailov.

Dr. Barry Rodrigue, an Assistant Professor with the University of Southern Maine who helped organize the trip said this entire experience is whatever our Chechen visitors want to make of it.

"We're just sowing seeds. How they cultivate it is up to them," said Rodrigue.

Before heading back, the group extended an invitation to area journalist to visit their country.

"We have no senior citizen homes or orphanages. Chechens take care of their own," explained Makhadzhiyeva. "We'd love for journalists from Maine to come to Chechnya to see how our people live in peace time."

To learn more about the Open World Leadership Center's Open World Program, log on to www.openworld.gov.

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