By Kathreen Harrison

Families fleeing persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations in their home countries continue to arrive in Maine. The families are mostly young, with children in tow. The adults want to work. The children want to make friends. They come primarily from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Haiti. The majority traveled for months to find safety – some for years. Most crossed into the U.S. at the southern border.

On arrival in Maine, they are housed in motels in Cumberland and York counties, because the pandemic has made crowded shelter life unsafe. At present, there are approximately 1,000 people living in the motels, according to Fatima Saidi of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC). Most are seeking asylum in the U.S., though some hope to continue on to Canada, where word-of-mouth indicates that the immigration system is fairer in some ways. All are hoping to start new lives in a safe place.

Portland city staff tries to locate affordable apartments for the asylum seekers in the state’s already overtaxed and highly priced rental market. If found, the apartments are paid for with General Assistance vouchers. Once they are granted work permits, newcomers start to pay their own way. They join the workforce and contribute economically to the state both in the form of tax dollars and labor.

The influx of asylum seekers in Maine is part of an alarming upward global trend of desperate people looking for a safe place to live. Maine’s numbers are tiny compared to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimate of 30 million refugees and asylum seekers worldwide, most of whom seek and find some sort of refuge in countries neighboring their home countries, many in refugee camps.

Nonprofit leaders in the state commend the grassroots coalition helping manage the crisis, as well as the family match program. However, they say that what is needed is a statewide, governmental response to the crisis, and emphasize that all of Maine stands to benefit from the successful integration of these young families. 

Those caring for the newest arrivals in Maine include an informal grassroots coalition of members of immigrant-led associations, service providers, nonprofits, volunteers – and Chelsea Hoskins, the City of Portland Resettlement Coordinator, who is praised by many and said to be “everywhere at once.” One cook has been hired, as well as a small group of cultural brokers.

But the help currently in place is severely inadequate, according to many members of the community, and they criticized the state’s response to the situation, saying it lags well behind the obvious need: people are hungry, ill clothed, and suffering from poor health, including trauma. Children go to school carrying books in plastic bags; families cannot cook hot food for their children; people are short on diapers; women lack menstrual pads; there is nowhere to do laundry; pregnant women lack vitamins; and life in a motel room, for months on end, is hard.

In order to alleviate some of the distress while the state mounts an organized, adequate response, MIRC has launched an “Adopt an Immigrant Family” initiative. Already, about 150 Mainers have applied to participate. Matches are underway, and Mainers and their new friends have started to connect. The goal of the program is for residents of Maine – community groups, individuals, families – to help new arrivals get comfortably clothed for winter, and respond – at whatever level they can – to requests for help navigating life in Maine.

Connecting Across Cultures, a community group based in Camden, has been matched with a family of three in a motel in South Portland. One of the group members said, “I was so moved by the second request we got from the mother of the family (the first was a request for winter coats and boots, which was quickly fulfilled). ‘I’d like to go to the university here. Will that be possible?’ Maine is lucky to have these young families arrive just when we need workers.”

Fatima Saidi of MIRC is delighted by the response to the new program. She reported that some people are writing to her with offers of financial donations, and others have been matched with families. “We are very grateful,” she said. “People really care in Maine. And it’s part of what makes Maine a nice place. It’s cold here, but a lot of people have warm hearts.”

Some motel residents have telephoned Saidi after they’ve been connected with a local family. “They are so happy to have communication, to talk with the host.”

To participate or find out more, contact: [email protected].