By Kathreen Harrison

When Mainers learned that close to 450 asylum seekers fleeing violence and persecution had made their way to Portland this summer, after arduous journeys on land and sea from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, they responded. They opened their pockets and donated $900,000 to a fund set up by the City of Portland for the asylum seekers’ care, made General Assistance (GA) available to them statewide with the help of Governor Janet Mills and volunteered in large numbers at the makeshift shelter set up at the Expo Building in Portland. Then, when the Expo shelter was be closed on August 15, Mainers responded to a need for housing by offering to open their homes and communities to the migrants. The outpouring of assistance captured the attention of the national media.

Volunteers readied rooms and apartments for Maine’s newest residents

According to Jessica Grondin, Director of Communications for the City of Portland, as of September 24, a further 62 asylum seekers had arrived in Portland since the Expo shelter’s August 15 closure, bringing the total to over 500 since early June. Most of the more recent arrivals are also from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the majority crossed into the U.S. through the southern border. Ms. Grondin said that, as of September 24, 123 asylum seekers were living in the city shelters and 158 had been placed in independent housing. The remaining asylum seekers were either living with host families or had moved on from Maine, possibly to Canada. On September 4, the Portland City Council voted to accept the $900,000 in private donations they had received for meeting the basic needs of the migrant families through a number of different pathways, but the money has not yet been dispersed. No one knows if further waves of asylum seekers will make their way to Maine, however The Guardian reported September 30 that hundreds of African migrants are in Mexico, hoping to cross into the United States to ask for asylum.

Mufalo Chitam, Executive Director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC), noted that so many arrivals at one time is new for Maine, and coping with the numbers has not been easy. She pointed out that existing systems – schools, adult education centers, nonprofits that work with immigrants, and community associations – many of which were already taxed before this wave of newcomers arrived, all have more traffic now. Numerous people and organizations are working long hours, most without additional compensation, to meet the needs of the newcomers.

Christian Bisimwa, of Maine Access Immigrant Network (MAIN), agrees that the “Post-Expo” period has been difficult. “We are all doing the best we can to cover things, but the needs are great,” he said. Those needs include finding permanent housing for those still living with host families or at the shelter, helping the children get situated in schools, ensuring parents have access to English classes and getting the wrinkles out of the GA system in towns not accustomed to handling GA, which may include finding additional resources when the GA vouchers aren’t sufficient for a large family’s basic needs; helping with the immigration process, finding medical care for those suffering from physical problems, as well as from the effects of trauma and connecting people to faith communities.

Every few days, Papy Bongibo, President of the Congolese Association of Maine, makes a run from Biddeford to Scarborough, Lewiston and Brunswick, to try to help families with their needs. His phone rings constantly, he said, and all of this is in addition to his regular job. He noted that professional case managers are needed. At the moment, volunteers and community leaders are doing what they can to fill in the gaps. “We are doing the best we can to cover things until we can hire,” he said, “but you don’t take care of people’s lives without training. These people need social workers, case managers. I expected case managers would be hired faster with the donations collected by the City.”

“Government takes a long time to move,” Ms. Chitam cautioned. “And the systems in towns that have not had asylum seekers living there before are all still learning.” While she spoke from an office in Scarborough, she was interrupted by a family asking politely in French and rudimentary English for help getting milk for their baby. They were living miles from a store and needed a ride, saying they were out of food. They needed someone to help them be sure GA would allow them to buy the milk, and some green beans, oil and other food. The last time they tried, they said, something had gone wrong, and they were turned away from the store without any groceries. Ms. Chitam assured them that someone would be along shortly to help.

Without case managers, the newcomers turn to whomever is available to help them with basic needs. And the ten families still living with host families rely primarily on those hosts for assistance. A number of hosts shared that they had expected more support meeting the needs of their guests, and that they had felt abandoned at times, though all recognized the complexity of the situation.

Papy Bongibo and Nsiona Nguizani
Photo | Laura DeDoes

The Town of Brunswick took the proactive step of hiring Nsiona Nguizani as a cultural broker, soon after the arrival of the first of what are now 22 families. Brunswick has been proactive in raising funds as well. In addition to creating the full-time cultural broker position, they also established the Brunswick Community Support Fund to help with expenses not covered by GA. (A link for making a donation is available on the Town website) Mr. Nguizani has spent the “Post-Expo” period establishing a network of volunteer teams: the Basic Needs Team, the Medical Team, the Legal Team, the Education Team and so on. “The network is almost in place,” he said, “and the town and the volunteers are amazing.”

Mid-Coast Literacy, which runs one program to help young children and another to help high school students and adults, is working with Mr. Nguizani to help the asylum seekers, most of whom are living in Brunswick Landing and Captain’s Way. Each high school student and adult is currently being matched with a trained mentor. The mentor will help with English, as well as cultural adaptation and other needs. Mr. Nguizani stressed the importance of adapting to life in the U.S. “These immigrants made the decision to come to the U.S., so they have to learn U.S. ways – budgeting, how to make eye contact like Americans, how our schools work. They have to adapt. And we have to teach them how.”

He took two phones from his pocket and laid them out on the table. “I have two phones,” he said, “and they ring constantly from morning to night.” In addition to the families he is helping in Brunswick, he is President of the Angolan Community of Maine, which means that he gets calls and visits from other Angolans requesting help as well. Like so many others in southern Maine, he is working long days to support these newcomers who have come to Maine to seek refuge and build new lives.

Despite the challenges, everyone involved in the effort agrees that Maine continues to live up to its reputation of welcoming the stranger. A number of social media support group posts tell the tale: “We are looking for 3 or 4 volunteers with either pickup trucks or trailers to help us next Tuesday …we will meet at the shed, load up the MANY bins full of clothes, and bring them to the YMCA,” reads a post on one site. VOLUNTEERS NEEDED SUNDAY to sort, fold and hang clothes … like a free goodwill for the community…They get a mountain of donations weekly and could really use some help,” reads a post on a second site. And within an hour, responses start to roll in. The “Post-Expo” period has been challenging, but the newcomers have been warmly welcomed. And they feel it. Almost all hope to stay in Maine, get jobs and start paying Portland and the state back for the help it has extended them when they needed it most.

With winter approaching, however, and the one-year clock ticking for filing asylum applications, many are looking for the City of Portland to release funding soon. Ms. Grondin, speaking for the City, said, “We are working on getting an application process up and running for disbursing some of these funds to the community partners that assisted us during our work at the Expo. This process is underway, but not yet open. In addition, Portland is hiring an additional Human Services Counselor. The posting has closed, and interviews are being conducted the week of September 30. This will allow for increased follow-up for the families that we have assisted in securing housing.” Good news indeed for those involved in helping Maine’s newest residents.