By Stephanie Harp 

Serge Asumani, who is originally from DR Congo, knows what it’s like to be forced to leave home, and need help, and that’s what drives his passion to help others. “I know what makes them leave their country, their home, their family, their work – leave everything they know and start a new life in a new country where you don’t know the language, and don’t know how things work.” After many years working with refugees in Africa, and then California, now he works with asylum seekers at Hope Acts in Portland. 

Serge Asumani and Portuguese interpreter Rodrigo Julian with applicants

Most recently his focus has been the Asylum Application Resource Center, a pilot program set up by Hope Acts and Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition at the Portland Public Library to help asylum seekers submit their applications to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Asylum seekers must successfully submit their asylum applications to USCIS, and then wait 150 days after USCIS receives it before they can apply for a work permit. 

The Asylum Application Resource Center (AARC) program started in August, in response to a critical community need: the number of asylum seekers arriving in the greater Portland area continues to increase, while the number of immigration attorneys in Maine – at Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP) or in private practice – remains too small to meet the need. “Even though they’re doing their absolute best, they just don’t have the resources to help all of these people,” said Hope Acts Executive Director Martha Stein. “In addition to [already] huge numbers, they also had Afghanistan in the last year to deal with, and Ukraine, and all of the other really important immigration cases that need attention.” 

When Asumani realized the extent of the gap between the need for asylum application assistance and available legal help, he urged Stein and others to convene a task force to address the problem, and they did. Hope Acts, Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC), Preble Street, ILAP, American Civil Liberties Union, Maine Business Immigration Coalition, and the Maine Law School Refugee and Human Rights Clinic all joined hands and before long they had created the resource center. 

The AARC does not provide lawyers. Instead, through a combination of paid and volunteer help, people are guided through the application process. The main barrier to filling out the applications is language, Asumani said, along with computer literacy. “I am not a lawyer and I don’t have a lawyer there. We just follow the instructions together, make sure they answer all the questions, make sure they send it to the right place.” He keeps his eyes on ever-changing instructions on the USCIS website, and calls lawyers if he has questions. Most days, they can help 15 clients, sometimes more. Since August, the center has helped well over 200 asylum seekers. 

“We are very careful to call it a resource center, not a legal support center,” Stein said. “It’s to fill an urgent need in the community, as a stop gap,  so people can get their initial application in, get it sent to the right place, and get their work permit clock started.” 

The first step is to come to Hope House on Sherman Street – the asylum-seeker housing that Hope Acts operates – to get the application form, with instructions in English, French, Lingala, or Portuguese. Then, each Friday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Asumani and his team set up shop at the Downtown Branch of the Portland Public Library to help pre-registered people fill out their applications. Asumani himself speaks French, Lingala, and Swahili. Volunteer helpers with language capacity are there, as are translators contracted through Catholic Charities Language Partners.  

French interpreter Daniel Grudda with applicants

And the program is working. People who have sent in their applications successfully after getting help from the center are getting receipts showing their application was received. Some come in to tell Asumani the good news. “People are so happy when they get the receipt. They come in to tell me with big smiles. It makes me so happy to see people are getting their applications received, and the clock has started moving,” said Asumani.  

Stein realizes the AARC is not a perfect solution because those staffing the center are not attorneys and they cannot provide legal advice. “I call it a Band-Aid. It’s an important Band-Aid, but it’s a Band-Aid because of the resource shortage. You have this incredibly complicated document, and it’s in English. ILAP has created really good instructions, both written and in video formats, translated into several languages. We encourage everyone to read the materials and view videos before they start their asylum application. But it’s still very difficult. It’s not an easy thing to get through.” 

A community effort 

Asumani of Hope Acts was the catalyst for the creation of AARC, and he is present helping clients whenever the center is open. In addition, MIRC and Portland Public Library provide logistical support of various kinds. Each organization plays an important role in the success of the program. The library provides printing and copying, space for clients to receive help, and other resources. “It’s been very much a community effort. We put the whole thing together in probably under two months,” Stein said.  

The program is partially funded through an emergency services grant administered by the United Way. Hope Acts and MIRC financially support the program, and Portland Public Library provides space along with some printing and laptop use. MIRC covers expenses like passport photos and certified mailing, funds the interpreters, and provides project coordination. “Every week we try to request the same people because when they help more than once, they become more than an interpreter because they understand the requests,” said Dacoda Maddalone, Lead of Community Engagement and Programs at MIRC. 

Everyone credits Asumani with making the AARC a reality. “He’s only worked for us for about seven months,” said Stein. “He is from the community, and he not only saw the problem, but people started confiding in him. All of these people were showing up at the office asking for him, and I didn’t really know why,” she said. “He was relentless: ‘We have to help these people. We have to do more.’ Multiple times a week, Serge pressed me to find a way to help with asylum applications, and every week the number of people coming to our office for help increased. Serge was right. With the help of partners, we could do more. There are so many things we can’t do anything about. This felt like we might be able to do something.” 

Maddalone said people at MIRC are delighted with the program. She remarked on the “peace it brings the client, knowing they’re getting help to fill out the application. They can ask questions, and have this one-on-one experience with someone who has been educated, rather than just handing them the application.”  

And Myles Robert, the Business and Government Librarian at Portland Public Library, is pleased that the library is becoming more known to newcomers. Many are uncertain, due to their status, whether or not the library is a safe place to be. “Every day we’re getting inquiries…. For us, it’s really been the most effective way for New Mainers to feel safe coming into a library,” Robert said. “This really is a safe place and we’re just really here to help you as much as we can.” 

And Myles Robert, the Business and Government Librarian at Portland Public Library, is pleased that the library is becoming more known to newcomers. Many are uncertain, due to their status, whether or not the library is a safe place to be. “Every day we’re getting inquiries…. For us, it’s really been the most effective way for New Mainers to feel safe coming into a library,” Robert said. “This really is a safe place and we’re just really here to help you as much as we can.” 

Beware of ‘bad actors’ 

The shortage of immigration lawyers has been growing in recent years, and so has a rise in “bad actors” – non-lawyers who charge people to fill out and file applications for them – something that is illegal in Maine. These “bad actors” are often people from their home countries, who offer to file the asylum application for a high fee or who otherwise exploit the newcomers. And then the application is incorrectly filed, or not filed at all.  

“I have seen so many people being abused by bad players. People who pretend to be lawyers, ask them for money, don’t do the job like they promise, leave the client waiting and the deadline passes – seeing that was when I started advocating to do something to help,” Asumani said. “We can’t just say to them, ‘don’t go to those bad players’ without providing an alternative solution – they can’t afford to hire a lawyer.”.  

Before AARC, people would come to the Hope House office on Wednesdays – the work permit clinic day – and say they’d applied a year ago and were certain that the right number of days had passed. The staff would check for them, either online or by calling an 800 number, only to learn the person wasn’t in the government system at all. “So often, too much of the time, it was because that person who originally assisted the client was not a lawyer, and had sent papers to the wrong place, so USCIS never received them. In other cases, improperly prepared asylum applications were rejected,” said Stein. 

Hope Acts originally hired Asumani to work on housing, a dire situation for asylum seekers in the Portland area right now, which complicates the application process. “Most of the people that are coming to us now are homeless,” Stein said. “So it’s impossible – they don’t have computers, they don’t have wireless, don’t have access to printing, don’t have money to do copies and certified mail. That’s why it’s so easy for them to fall prey to one of the bad actors. Or try to do something on their own that gets rejected. And if they don’t have a stable address, if the courts reject it, they may never know that it’s rejected.”  

And sometimes people try to fill out the applications themselves and make mistakes.  Partner organizations have seen a significant increase in clients who think they submitted their asylum application, only to find out later that the application was never received, which makes the person ineligible for a work permit. When they began looking into the problem, Hope Acts learned that many people make mistakes in filling out their paperwork or send it to the wrong address, and either USCIS doesn’t receive it, or rejects it due to mistakes and omissions. Common mistakes are submitting the application with no signature or no photo, not answering each question, sending it to the wrong address, or not including enough copies, Asumani said.  

Plans to continue 

AARC is a pilot program, and Hope Acts and their partners are in the process of seeking funding to continue. And they are proud of what they’ve accomplished so far.  

“We spend so much time helping people with and focusing on everything that’s broken and everything that’s not working,” said Stein. “And to be able to pull together a little team of people with a pretty modest amount of money, and pull this off, is something that I’m really proud of.”   

The pulling together is what Maddalone noted, too: “It really just feels like we’re all just linking arms and doing the best we can with what we have.” 

Robert is happy that the library is involved. “The library plays such a small part but we’re glad to be here as a resource for people.”  

Given the state of the country and the world right now, Stein knows everyone needs things to be hopeful about, and seeing this project come together is one of them. “We need positive things to happen. I can’t make Congress make the work permit period shorter or anything like that, I can’t make apartment buildings appear out of thin air,” she said. “But when community partners come together, we can make a positive impact.” 

Asumani has been documenting the work in a slideshow. “It’s my passion, helping people. You feel tired at the end of the day, but the goal is to submit applications and help people get the receipt and into the system,” he said.