Story and Photos by Kathreen Harrison
With the uptick in arrivals of asylum seekers that began in the summer of 2019, Maine’s local immigrant-led associations, their nonprofit allies, faith communities, and supporters around the state have stepped up their game to try and fill the gaps left by government in addressing their needs.
Legal assistance, language assistance, transportation assistance, cultural integration assistance, material assistance for items not provided by General Assistance (beds, winter clothing, cooking pans, etc.), health support – all of this the newcomers have needed – and continue to need. And thanks to the kindness and tenacity of Mainers, at least some of the help required is being provided.
Hope Acts, a Portland-based nonprofit with a tiny staff, focused exclusively on addressing the needs of asylum seekers, is one of the organizations working harder than ever in order to help the recent arrivals. Hope Acts operates Hope House, the only residential program for adult asylum seekers in Maine, which houses 13 single adults at a time. “We would love to have room for everyone at Hope House — have another building, say yes to everyone who walks through the door — but we do not have the resources,” Hope House Executive Director Martha Stein said. But where there’s a will to help, there’s a way, and Hope Acts has found a way that makes a measurable difference for many.
From noon until 3:00 p.m. every Monday through Thursday, any asylum seeker needing help accessing services or understanding and completing documents can go to Hope House on Sherman Street in Portland for help through the Asylum Seeker Assistance Program (ASAP). The program is open to all asylum seekers, and assistance is free. Examples of assistance provided at Hope House are housing searches and applications, job searches and applications, reading and understanding English mail & documents, making appointments, finding other services and resources, and managing schedules. ASAP is staffed by social work interns from the University of Southern Maine, who receive clinical supervision from ASAP partner Gateway Community Services, as well as community volunteers, including a large group from the family mentoring group Welcoming the Stranger. On Wednesdays, volunteers assist newcomers in filling out complex work authorization application forms – the only day of the week when this assistance is available.
The Wednesday program was conceived during a conversation in summer 2019 between Carolyn Graney of Hope Acts and Nancy Markowitz of Welcoming the Stranger. Graney and Markowitz knew that Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP), the primary source of immigration help for asylum seekers in Maine for many years, was overwhelmed by the increased demand for legal services presented by the surge in new immigrants. Wanting to take something off ILAP’s plate that didn’t require attorneys, and free up ILAP to help more people, Markowitz suggested reaching out to the extensive Welcoming the Stranger volunteer network for help. The volunteer network responded, and the program was launched.
“At first, no one knew we were offering work authorization assistance, and it was quiet – but now everyone comes. We have French, Portuguese, and Lingala interpreters available, including people on Workfare who live at Hope House. If you build it, they’ll come!” said Markowitz. On an average week, volunteers help approximately 20 asylum seekers complete and submit their work authorization forms. And the help extends in both directions.
“Hope House is a positive, welcoming space for volunteers and for asylum seekers in need. The work is dynamic and has stretched me to learn in new ways,” said Yana Davis, a social work intern from USM.
“I’m retired, and I don’t feel comfortable not making some kind of contribution. It’s a great way to help,” said Joyce Branaman, a mentor with Welcoming the Stranger, who volunteers each Wednesday.
Since June 9, 857 asylum seekers have arrived in the City of Portland. Beginning life in Maine without English skills and permission to work, and often after experiencing trauma, is not something many people can do successfully without a good deal of help. For information about volunteering, please contact Carolyn Graney, the Hope Acts Program Manager, at [email protected] or 207-274-6005.
To make a donation to Hope Acts, mail a check to Hope Acts, P.O. Box 7615, Portland, ME 04112, or donate online at www.hopeacts.org/give.