LOOKING AHEAD Emmanuel Muya.

"Back in the Congo, we heard rumors that America is paradise — where everything is perfect, money flows like water, you can eat as much as you want, whenever you want, you can get anything," says Emmanuel Muya, one of 15 immigrant high school students featured in a new documentary, The Whole World Waiting, which will premiere at SPACE Gallery on Thursday. Emmanuel, who grew up playing soccer in the streets of Congo, envisioned a glittering America, like something out of the movies. It's not what he found — Maine, for example, is not a shiny place with fast cars and skyscrapers. "I found out that people here are starved too — of money and food — and life can also be complicated. But at least there was peace and freedom."

Despite the fact that his family led a relatively comfortable life back home (his father held a prestigious government job), Emmanuel says "with no hesitation" that he is happy to have landed here. "Hell yeah," he says.

"There is something special about getting to America that makes people hold onto their dreams of it being their final destination," he says. "Nothing on this earth can be compared to a paradise."

The myth may have toppled, but when you see Emmanuel surveying all of Portland from the North Street park overlook, smiling with the sun on his face, you know a different dream is being built.

In 2011 and 2012, I mentored Emmanuel as part of the Telling Room's Young Writers and Leaders program — an innovative afterschool literacy, arts, and leadership project that gives immigrant and refugee high-schoolers a small stipend in return for a significant time investment. The majority of these young adults moved to Maine from war-torn or otherwise distressed regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America (as of 2010, there were 8633 foreign-born residents in Portland, or 13 percent of the city's population, according to the US Census Bureau). Through YWL, a selected group of students get nine months of one-on-one tutoring and college-prep assistance, financial literacy and job-skills training, and the chance to work with community leaders like teacher and hip-hop artist Sonya Tomlinson (a/k/a Sontiago). Tomlinson has worked with the YWL kids in several capacities, including running a songwriting workshop in 2010 and now organizing this film project.

The Whole World Waiting, lushly shot by David Meiklejohn in locations around Portland and its environs (including a goat farm in Buxton and the State Theatre), is Tomlinson's brainchild, made possible in part through a Good Idea Grant from the Maine Arts Commission. It began as an effort explore the contradictions inherent in the life of a new American (especially a new American teenager), and as a way to incorporate other art forms and mediums into the YWL experience. It evolved to something bigger than that — a professionally produced set of vignettes that offers an inside glimpse of 15 teenagers' hearts and minds.

"Every student in the YWL program has seen things with their own eyes that many Americans will never experience," Tomlinson says. "I think it is vital that we document the stories of young people who are . . . able to recount their stories with a rawness and innocence that lends itself to unbridled truth."

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