By Ulya Aligulova
The United Nations General Assembly officially designated June 20 as World Refugee Day in December 2000. The day commemorates the anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which set forth guidelines for legal protections and other rights that a refugee is entitled to, as well as obligations of refugees toward their host countries. Refugees are those who have been forced to flee their homes to escape war, violence, or persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Each year, events recognizing the strength and courage of refugees take place on June 20 around the world. In Maine this year, World Refugee Day was celebrated in Lewiston and Portland.
The nonprofit Catholic Charities Maine Refugee and Immigration Services is the primary provider of resettlement services to refugees in Maine. The office was originally part of the state government. However, in 2017, the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage opted state government out of this role, and the office became a department of Catholic Charities.
Last year, the nonprofit Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine (JCA) became Maine’s second federally approved resettlement agency. JCA is newly affiliated with HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which works internationally to protect refugees. Most recently, the U.S. State Department approved Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services (MEIRS), a Somali-led nonprofit organization, as a community partner. MEIRS has been resettling Afghans in Maine.
The U.S. has a long and complicated history of immigration, and sentiments towards newcomers have fluctuated between welcoming and exclusionary over the years.
Each year, the U.S. President sets a cap for the number of refugees that will be admitted that year. Beginning in the 1980s, the number of refugees admitted steadily decreased, from a high of approximately 200,000 in 1980 to under 12,000 in 2020. The decline was particularly sharp after former President Donald Trump’s administration came to power. The following year, the ceiling number fell from 85,000 in 2016 – the highest number since 2000 – to 53,000, and ultimately to 18,000 in 2020 (which was not met, due to the COVID-19 pandemic). In Maine, the number of resettled refugees dropped from 642 in 2016 to a mere 40 in 2020.
President Joe Biden set a much higher cap for fiscal year 2022. But, according to Tarlan Ahmadov, State Refugee Coordinator at Catholic Charities Office of Maine Refugee Services, that number is unlikely to be met. “The presidential determination for refugee admissions for fiscal year 2022 was 125,000. Unfortunately, this number was very ambitious,” he said. “With the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and the incoming Afghan evacuees (who aren’t legally considered refugees) this number will likely not be met.”
Since the beginning of the current federal fiscal year, a total of 300 refugees and Afghan evacuees have arrived in Maine. Other than Afghanistan, refugees have arrived from Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, and South Sudan, and approximately 100 from Cuba and Haiti. As part of the Biden administration’s Operation Allies Welcome, Maine has resettled 240 Afghan evacuees so far, and is set to receive a total of 290 following the completion of Phase 2 of that resettlement process.
Refugees and asylum seekers have very different immigration experiences, although members of both categories of people have fled their homes to escape war, violence, and persecution. Before refugees come to the U.S., they have been granted legal status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This means that from the day they arrive in the U.S., they can apply for Social Security, work, and participate in different social programs, and they can stay indefinitely.
Asylum seekers are also fleeing persecution, but they are requesting the legal designation and, therefore, protections of a refugee from inside the U.S., via the asylum process. The federal government provides no financial support to asylum seekers, who must rely on state and local General Assistance, and help from faith communities and charity, until they receive a work permit, which takes at least six months after they file their application.
Because of the recent war in Ukraine, Biden has announced that the U.S. will be taking in 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. “At this moment, we don’t have much information about how, when, and how many Ukrainians will be coming to Maine,” Ahmadov said. “We’ve seen some Ukrainians that are coming through the Mexican border. Most of them have gone to California, but a few families have come to Maine and different church groups and other organizations are supporting them.”
Mufalo Chitam, Executive Director of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, a statewide network of 87 organizations that are working together to create and support programs and policies that promote immigrant inclusion and integration, said, “Right now Maine is experiencing an asylum seeker crisis which has been going on for over a year. When it comes to housing shortage, marginalized communities are the most affected. There are very limited resources right now. Our communities of immigrants are just surviving, and struggling to have their basic needs met, such as food and accommodation.”
The lack of affordable housing is such a problem for new arrivals that many have been living in shelters and hotels in southern Maine for months – even over a year – because they could not find more permanent housing. Now resettlement agencies are looking beyond southern Maine for housing. “We’ve been resettling people in the Lewiston/Auburn as well as Augusta areas. We’re also expanding our resettlement to Bangor. Catholic Charities will be opening a second resettlement center there soon. It will be crucial and hopefully diminish the problem with the housing shortage, which is the biggest problem across the state,” Ahmadov said.
Catherine Lindgren is the Afghanistan Project Attorney at Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP), Maine’s only statewide nonprofit immigration legal services provider. “I work in coordination with and in support of Maine’s resettlement agencies who are resettling Afghan evacuees, so I can speak to the legal challenges faced by those who were evacuated from Afghanistan by the U.S. government,” she said.
“Most Afghans were admitted with humanitarian parole, and they will need to pursue another path in order to eventually be able to apply for a green card. The vast majority of Afghans resettled in Maine will need to apply for asylum. Although people often refer to Afghan evacuees as refugees, they don’t have the same legal status as refugees. Refugees are allowed to apply for a green card a year after arriving in the U.S. But these individuals are here with temporary permission. That often creates a sense of insecurity and uncertainty regarding their futures here.”
— Catherine Lindgren
About 400 Afghan Americans were already living in Maine at the time of the fall of Kabul, in August 2021. Recent Afghan evacuees primarily live in the greater Portland, Brunswick, Lewiston, and Augusta areas. Abdul Qani is President of the Afghan Community of Maine, which is led by five Afghan Americans. “A lot of new families have moved into apartments far from the greater Portland area. We’re in contact via a WhatsApp group called Afghans of Maine, which has over 100 members. We provide several programs, not just for the newly arrived Afghans but also those who have lived in Maine a while. These include the cash assistance program with money donated by Maine Community Foundation, a food basket program, help with enrolling in online English classes, and funding for new arrivals to attend driving school.”
W.K., an Afghan evacuee who settled in Maine a few months ago, recalled his journey from Kabul to Maine. “I was at my university in Kabul one day when someone said that the Taliban was coming. When I came out of my class, I realized I was one of the last people left in the building. As I exited the university area, I noticed that everyone’s faces were full of terror – they were saying that the Taliban was coming. That day everyone left their jobs; all the stores, schools, and universities were closed. There were no policemen in the police station, no army, there was no one to help. I can never forget that day. Everyone was going home and there was a lot of traffic. There were no taxis or buses so I had to walk home for an hour and a half. My dad also came home from work. He said the city was in danger, and all of the citizens’ lives were in danger.”
He continued, “At the time my uncle, who lives in America, was visiting us. I told my uncle to take us with him because we’re in danger, and we no longer have a future here. I lost my university, I lost my job, I didn’t have anything left there now. We went to the airport and saw that there was a lot of fighting there. The Taliban were at every gate of the airport and no one could pass. They were beating people and shooting at everyone. We came back to the airport a few days later when the U.S. army arrived there. My uncle talked with them and showed his green card and asked if he could take me with him, and they agreed. I couldn’t take my family to the airport because it was too much of a risk. Once we arrived in D.C., I finally felt like my life was no longer in danger. But my family is still in danger. I don’t think there’s a chance for them to come. I don’t know what will happen next. I’m not a citizen, I don’t have a green card or a passport, I just have a parole visa. I can’t do anything for my parents.”
Unlike W.K., who has been in Maine only a few months, Shukri Abdirahman moved to Lewiston as a refugee in 2009 at the age of 10. She was born and raised at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya after her parents fled the Somali civil war in the 1990s. Her family lived in the camp for 20 years, awaiting their refugee status. “Growing up, the camp was the only home I knew. Before moving to the U.S., where everyone started calling me a refugee, I didn’t even realize it was a refugee camp.
“My parents had a lot of kids so they couldn’t pay attention to all of us, so we were free to run around and explore with friends. We saw many things that traumatized us, but that was just part of the life in the camp. I’ve seen many women and children in the camp get physically and sexually abused and raped. The way people coped was through religion. My parents are Muslim and I’m also Muslim. We always turned to God and had faith that we could get food for the next month. There was only one school in the camp, which had elementary, middle, and high school combined. I didn’t really learn anything in school; I’d only go because there was nothing else to do. So, I didn’t really get any formal education before I came to the U.S. My parents had no education, not even primary school education, so when we came to America, they really encouraged my siblings and I to work hard in school.” Abdirahman recently graduated from University of Maine, Farmington, and has been nominated to represent Maine at the national nonpartisan Refugee Congress.
Wars and political conflict inevitably produce refugees, as has certainly been the case on a massive scale in the past year. Recently, the world recorded over 100,000 million displaced people for the first time in history. World Refugee Day serves to focus international attention on the plight of these individuals.