By Kholiswa Mendes Pepani
On August 15, 2021, when the Taliban recaptured Kabul, a frantic rush to try and get out of Afghanistan gained momentum. Communities all over the world scrambled to make arrangements for the emergency arrival of Afghan refugees. Amongst these was the Capital Area New Mainers Project, known as (CANMP), which prepared to welcome families. Based in Augusta, CANMP (pronounced “camp”) was created in 2017 as a community initiative to provide support for Augusta’s growing immigrant community, foster relationships, and take a stand against the bigotry toward migrants expressed by the former president. Since 2017, CANMP has successfully helped an estimated 70 families – over 400 people from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan – settle into the Augusta area.
“We are not a refugee resettlement agency,” said Myers Asch. “But [after the fall of Kabul] we reached out to Catholic Charities Maine, and Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, to extend a helping hand. Initially we expected to receive 10 families right away, but it’s proven a bit hard to get families to come to Augusta. At the moment, Portland [and Lewiston] have become the center of the Afghan community. Once families join the community that already exists there, they are less willing to see other places like Augusta and Bangor as potential homes. The first Afghan family settled here in November, and another joined in December. We are expecting to receive two more by the end of January. We hope that more families will begin to settle here so that other incoming Afghans begin to see Augusta as a community that they can build from. The teams are set up and waiting. We just don’t have enough families yet.”
Myers Asch knows that immigration is a generational process that does not take place overnight. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. Immigrating into a new country, a new community, it takes a very long time. Volunteers may not see the kind of progress that they hope for in a year or two. Whatever measure of successful immigration you want to use, people will get there. It doesn’t happen overnight and it never has.”
When CANMP was founded, some Afghans had already made their way to Augusta, but the numbers were small relative to the number of Iraqi and Syrian families. Co-founder and Executive Director Chris Myers Asch explained the early days of the organization. “We came together in early 2017, and at first there were four main people involved; myself, Sarah Shed, and two young Iraqis, Hasan Alkhafaji, and Ahmed Al-Abbas. With the incoming Trump administration there were so many marches and protests, as people tried to deal with concerns around his political stance. We wanted to channel that energy into something that could be ongoing and sustainable for the community. So we started CANMP, and recruited a lot of volunteers by tapping into the existing energy. This was something everyone could do at a local level – work together with the immigrant community to build bridges and connect people.”
Myers Asch explained that CANMP developed core areas to facilitate lasting relationships between the host community and immigrant families. “The first piece, where it all started, was connecting people and building relationships. In 2017, there wasn’t a lot of interaction between the American host community and the immigrant community, and we wanted to build those relationships so that people could get to know one another, trust each other, and if something came up, they would know people to call. Pre-COVID, we would host Potluck dinners, and holiday celebrations. Different types of gatherings where families got to know each other.”
One of CANMP’s first initiatives was the ‘family mentor team’ program, which allows new families to work with 4 or 5 Americans who volunteer to provide logistical, social, and educational support, helping families adjust to life in central Maine. “My family is originally from D.C., and when we came up here, we had people in our Temple who did that same thing. I’m an American and a native English speaker, but a new community is just different. When you move to a new place it’s nice to have local people who can show you around and assist with things like where to take the kids for free activities, or where to get snow tires. We wanted to create a group of neighbors who could help people adjust. The family mentor teams are really where most of the relationships develop,” Myers Asch said
CANMP’s Program Director Nakaa Nassir began her career as a translator, helping with adult language programs. Recently she has been facilitating Arabic classes for immigrant youth, to help them hold onto their tradition and culture. She explained, “Through Arabic we are able to preserve our culture, to keep tradition alive. It’s a reminder of where we come from, and that is too priceless to lose. Arabic is our tradition. It is our culture. It’s the language of the Qur’an. If we forget our language, we forget everything.” When Nassir’s classes began in September, she had over 60 participants, but that number has recently dropped to between 30 to 35, due to transportation issues and COVID-19. As the current surge passes, Nassir hopes that the numbers of volunteers and students will increase once again.
CANMP works to educate the broader Augusta community about their new neighbors. Myers Asch explained, “There is a lot of misinformation out there, so it was important to connect with locals and help them understand what is going on. Before COVID, we were able to go to churches and host events where we shared information about the immigration process, and who was coming here and why. We went over what some of the challenges and benefits of immigration are. It was really important to reach out and teach people about the situation before any kind of misunderstandings had a chance to present greater challenges to the process.”
CANMP has worked hard to develop programs over the past five years that have paved the way for immigrants to settle in Augusta. Myers Asch sees the arrival of Afghans as a boon for the state. For one thing, demographics are such that the workforce is depleted. For another, younger people are known to prefer living in diverse cities and towns. Said Myers Asch, “Maine needs more immigrants; Maine needs more diversity. It makes Maine a better place.”