By Jean D. Hakuzimana
The Congolese community of Maine – COCOMaine – elected a new president, Mardochee Mbongi, in September. His term follows more than four years of leadership by Papy Bongibo, whom Mbongi credits with the growth of the organization’s infrastructure.
“We have an office, and a place to implement our community programs, thanks to the past administration,” Mbongi said. Next steps include transforming the organization into a nonprofit, he added.
The Congolese community has been instrumental in recent years in the integration of fellow refugees from Congo who arrive in Maine. Of particular note was the period of the “Expo summer” of 2019. Over a period of a few months, upwards of 450 asylum seekers, primarily from Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo, arrived in Maine after traveling for months – and in some cases years – to escape persecution in Africa. “COCOMaine helped to take care of refugees housed in the [temporary shelter] at the Expo in Portland,” Mbongi said. “Also, our organization has been key to helping refugees…in the motels.”
Mbongi speaks of himself as an advocate and human rights activist. Like many new Mainers, he remembers feeling lost and confused upon his arrival in Maine in April 2016. “I faced all the reality of newcomers, and I looked forward to [figuring out] what I could do to get out of the situation.” He reminisced about his first job, which was as a cleaning person at the YMCA of Greater Portland. After that, he started teaching English to fellow immigrants, worked at the Salvation Army, and at Abbott Laboratories. Mbongi credits all these jobs as bridges to being elected as COCOMaine’s new president. “I faced the same constraints as other members of my community, and that gave me a chance to learn the everyday needs [we have] as newcomers in Maine.” He has been an active member of COCOMaine since his arrival in 2016.
New Leadership, New Vision
Elected for a two-year term, Mbongi is full of ideas about how to move COCOMaine forward. He sees education, fundraising, integration, membership enrollment, and social life as strategic areas to develop. For example, he’d like to see programs to help Congolese immigrants focus on education, including English acquisition and computer literacy, to reduce underemployment and increase people’s chances of entering the workforce at higher levels than is frequently the norm.
And Mbongi wants a community organization with a database of members. “We sent out a Google form where all Congolese can register to be counted as members of COCOMaine. This will help us plan how to serve them best. We have more than 400 people already registered,” he said.
Mbongi said finances are a concern. “We are financially broke,” he said, and expressed concern that this leaves the community in a vulnerable state. He believes the organization needs nonprofit status, so it can fundraise, and “build financial muscles,” to better serve the community.
“At the moment, we are an ethnic community-based organization that operates in the shadows of nonprofits. We need to be a nonprofit organization ourselves,” he said.
Mbongi is calling for the community to come together and get deeply involved in every activity of COCOMaine, “to give it life,” and build COCOMaine’s capacity, so it can play an even greater role in Maine in the future.