By Georges Budagu Makoko
Life is unpredictable: you never know where it will take you and how quickly things may change.
When I arrived in Portland 21 years ago, I found very few people from my homeland, the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa, which includes DR Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. At the time, the largest immigrant communities in Maine were people from Cambodia, Somalia, and Sudan. Within our small community in Portland, everyone from the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa knew each other, lived in Portland and Westbrook, and exchanged visits frequently. I did not know anybody who lived in some of the cities and towns where many community members are buying and renting houses today, such as Auburn, Augusta, Brunswick, Biddeford, Lewiston, or Saco.
At the time we all worked for very low wages and for the same few companies. We learned of jobs through referrals and word-of-mouth. Most of us worked for Barber Foods, IDEXX Laboratories, or Nichols Portland. More than 80% of my community’s members were young, single, and educated. We had come to Maine seeking asylum after escaping atrocities in our respective countries.
Sadly, as the years have passed, and conflicts continue to ruin lives and communities in Central Africa, Somalia, and Sudan – not to mention outside of Africa in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, among many others – the number of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing home and entering Maine has increased significantly. We have seen a rise in homelessness on our city streets, and while foreign-born arrivals have not caused the affordable housing crisis, they have contributed to it. Other contributors include inward migration from other states during the pandemic, skyrocketing housing prices, the opioid crisis, and the mental health crisis. Shelters fill as soon as they open, tent embankments proliferate, and the outlook of being able to provide housing for everyone in the near future is cloudy at best.
Meanwhile the vibrant and creative cultures of immigrant communities have become integral parts of the social and economic fabric of Maine. And immigrants have contributed significantly to workforce development. When I arrived here, I knew very few people who owned businesses, for example, but in the last five years, I have seen numerous people open businesses in different fields including cleaning agencies, clothing stores, healthcare agencies, and restaurants.
“The immigrant community has changed the state of Maine in so many positive ways,” said E’nkul Kanakan, who arrived in Maine in 1996 from DR Congo. “They have brought an incredible spirit of resilience, hard work, and entrepreneurship, and things have improved every year for the better.” Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order to establish an Office of New Americans states that the total purchasing power of Maine’s approximately 50,000 foreign-born residents is $1.2 billion, and their total tax contribution is $441 million.
Pious Ali, the City Councilor At-Large who is running for mayor of the city of Portland, mentioned that when he arrived here in 2002, whenever he attended a community event, he knew the name, address, and occupation of almost everyone, but looking back 20 years later he has seen amazing changes. “Back in 2002, I knew a handful of people who had grocery stores, but now I know a lot of people who own real estate businesses and work for government agencies, who have started nonprofit organizations, and employ many people,” Ali said.
Every time I think back and consider how far many people have come, including myself, I am reminded of those who are less fortunate than myself, and who live in harm’s way. These people could benefit from a little help at the most difficult times of their lives. It is my hope that Maine will continue to be a welcoming state and support the work of humanity. We must strive to build a strong and supportive Maine that we all want to live in.