By Anna M. Drzewiecki and Kathreen Harrison | Photos John Ochira
On Friday Feb. 18, about 50 people gathered at the Brunswick Landing to celebrate the opening of the newly renovated Welcome Center. The Welcome Center is intended to centralize resources for immigrants arriving in Brunswick, and provide a hub for socializing, internet use, childcare, and accessing legal, workforce, and English language learning services, among other resources.
“We want New Mainers to find what they need here,” said Brunswick Parks and Recreation Director Thomas Farrell. “We welcome everyone here today.” The Welcome Center is housed in the Parks and Recreation building, which formerly belonged to the Naval Air Base and is now owned by the Town of Brunswick. Town officials spoke about the power of togetherness, and the importance of having one place to help New Mainers – one hub for services.
Brunswick first started using the building to welcome asylum seekers in 2019, but until now the separate spaces in the building were not connected, and the rooms had not been refurbished. The Town Council and Bowdoin College provided major funding for the renovations, which were aimed at making the back of the building fully functional and connected to the front. Maine Community Foundation, Nathaniel Davis Fund, and the Sam L. Cohen Fund all contributed generously to the project. Brunswick-based home goods retailer Wayfair donated chairs and tables.
After the ribbon cutting, attendees lined up for a tour of facilities that included a kitchen area, a future computer lab, a future fitness center, child-sized tables, comfortable couches, a piano, conference rooms, and colorful murals painted in response to the guiding theme “What does community mean to you?” designed by local youth participants in ArtVan, an art therapy nonprofit.
“We’re so grateful to be a part of this“
Julianna Nelson, a therapeutic arts assistant.
A new daycare facility is slated to figure among the many resources of the new space. There will also be a fitness and wellness center.
One branch of the nonprofit Immigrant Resource Center of Maine (IRCM), founded and led by Somali-born Fatuma Hussein, will be located in the Welcome Center, and IRCM Housing Assistance Specialist Benedita Kakhuba will be based there. Kakhuba came to Brunswick in 2020 after leaving Angola in 2019. She is a student at Southern Maine Community College, and the only full-time staff at the center. She speaks five languages. She will be present Monday through Friday helping community members navigate resources, receive support, and connect with other organizations.
“I am very excited and really thank the Brunswick community,” said Kakhuba. “To look forward is very important to us as an agency. At some point, people have to get the tools that they need to move forward.”
Hussein thanked the Brunswick community for welcoming her organization, and for continuing to welcome immigrants. She said her vision for the center includes improving legal aid access, cultural and linguistically appropriate education, and services to address gender-based violence, with a particular emphasis on empowering young women and girls.
Carol Kalajainan, a member of the executive steering committee of the volunteer nonprofit MidCoast New Mainers Group, which has been actively assisting asylum seekers in the area for a number of years, said, “We are looking forward to working with IRCM and having a bigger team of people who can assist the community. The opening of the Welcome Center and the arrival of IRCM are twin developments that are good for the asylum-seeking community. This bodes well for the welcoming nature of Brunswick and the asylum seekers in Maine.”
Kalajainan noted that the majority of families that moved to Bath and Brunswick in 2019 are still living in the community. Many people are now working, speak English, and have cars, she said. They first arrived during the months commonly known in Maine as the “Expo Summer,” when over 400 individuals arrived in the state during a two-month period. Currently, Maine is experiencing another wave of asylum seeker arrivals, with over 200 individuals arriving during the month of December 2021 alone.
Housing is a concern in the Brunswick area, as well as elsewhere in the state. Many of the original, asylum-seeker families who moved to the Landing in 2019 still reside in cramped apartments there because they are unable to locate affordable housing in town. Brunswick is considered by many to be a testing ground for what can happen if a municipality outside of what is generally called “southern Maine” invests resources in welcoming immigrants. A strong network of community organizations pulled together to help with integration and access to services, and Brunswick has benefitted.