Nsiona Nguizani is President of the Angolan Community of Maine. Nguizani estimates that approximately 2,000 Angolans live in the Greater Portland area, with a growing community in Lewiston/Auburn as well, for a Maine total of over 2,500 Angolans. Nguizani has worked hard to make sure community members have all been informed about COVID-19, how to protect themselves, and how to protect the community. In addition, the community has been active in making sure every Angolan who needs help meeting basic needs during the pandemic receives that help. Food has been a big focus of the community’s efforts, since many Angolans in Maine are asylum seekers, who have limited resources because they have been prohibited from working. Most have no vehicles and are reliant on General Assistance and on help from food pantries. Nguizani and volunteers have been collecting boxes from the food pantries and delivering to the homes of community members in order to encourage social distancing. Some community members are approaching their one-year anniversaries to file for asylum. A team of legal volunteers has been working with these families to prepare their applications.
Philèmon Dushimire is President of the Burundi Community Association of Maine (BCAM), which is community centered, with a focus on offering social, financial, and emotional support. Much activity revolves around weddings, funerals, graduations, and other similar events, and includes fundraising to support these occasions. Dushimire believes there are approximately 1,000 Burundians living in Maine, with a growing number in the Lewiston/Auburn area. During the COVID-19 crisis, BCAM has worked hard to make sure people are informed. The community’s main vehicle for sharing information is a WhatsApp group of 235 members. If a community member feels sick, needs food, or has a question, they reach out to Dushimire and the community. BCAM is concerned about some community members who don’t use technology to communicate and who might be missing information. Another concern is that non-English speaking parents feel unable to help their children with their education during this period of staying at home. Burundians are very social and spend a great deal of time in gatherings, so this era of social distancing is very challenging. Younger people are using technology to connect, but this doesn’t come as easily to older people.
The Capital Area New Mainers Project (CANMP) continues to serve as a hub for accurate, translated information about COVID-19. CANMP works with Augusta schools to distribute learning materials to immigrant students and with the New England Arab American Organization to help distribute Ramadan food to local families. CANMP was founded as a nonprofit in 2017 when a group of local residents wanted to help new arrivals integrate into the community. Chris Myers Asch is the CANMP Co-Founder and Executive Director. Approximately 65 families of recent arrivals – most originally from the Middle East, primarily Iraq and Syria – live in the Augusta area. The majority are secondary migrants, who were admitted to the United States as refugees, resettled in Florida and Arizona, and then chose to relocate to Maine, beginning in 2013. Augusta has also embraced a small number of recent African immigrants from Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda, and has been home to a number of families from South Asia for many years. The Augusta school system educates over 100 children whose mother tongue is not English.
Mileina Beatrice is President of the Congolese Brazzaville Community of Maine, which serves new arrivals, refugees, and asylum seekers in Maine. The organization has been working hard to raise awareness about the pandemic and educate community members about the importance of following CDC guidelines, such as social distancing and hand washing. The community has been convening zoom meetings to update members on the latest news about the crisis, including the stay at home order, and share resources related to health and finances. Beatrice reports that she has been working with other community leaders in Maine. In addition to local problems, the community is concerned about the lack of masks and other supplies in Congo Brazzaville.
Papy Bongibo is President of COCOMaine, the Congolese Association of Maine. The association usually plans events and educational meetings, and also supports community members at important junctures in their lives such as births, weddings, and funerals. During the pandemic, Bongibo has been active in educating his community about how to stay safe. He updates regularly through social media, WhatsApp, and live videos – any vehicle he can find for distributing important messages to help community members keep up with news related to COVID-19. He has also been working hard to make sure no community members are left without access to food, diapers, and other necessities. He is creating a COVID-19 task force to support the most vulnerable people in the community and to make sure no one is left behind. Bongibo has also been pushing the importance of the census. He estimates that there are 2,500 Congolese living in Maine at this time.
Yassim Moussa is President of the Djiboutian American Community Empowerment Project (DACEP), and Hassan Guedi is the program director. DACEP is committed to the empowerment of children and young adults and to the development of leaders who reflect Maine’s diversity. Since the emergence of the new coronavirus, DACEP has focused on tackling the needs of Djiboutian Mainers in response to COVID-19. Many people have needed a great deal of assistance, due to their immigration status as asylum seekers, lack of proper health coverage, and initial difficulty understanding official guidelines due to language and cultural barriers. The disabled and elderly continue to need a great deal of help accessing food. Most Djiboutians are not eligible for relief from the government because of their immigrant status. DACEP has been helping community members with unemployment benefit applications, as well as applications for TANF and General Assistance. DACEP has also been following the media and translating information and updates into French, Afar, Somali, and Arabic, and sharing them with the community through social media. DACEP is having difficulty in paying the office rent, since DACEP’s income is through donations from community members, who are currently without resources. The Djiboutian community in Maine is relatively new, with most members having arrived after 2014. Maine is home to the largest Djiboutian population in the U.S., with between 300-400 families, and 2,000 individuals, including children. Most Djiboutian children in Maine are under 18 years old. Approximately half of Maine’s Djiboutians live in Portland, with the other half living in Lewiston. In general, Djiboutians are a highly educated group, and come to Maine with backgrounds in many professions such as teaching, engineering, and medicine. To reach the community, please email [email protected].
Antoine Bikamba is Interim President of the Rwandese Community Association of Maine. The association tries to support members when they need it, by pooling money for funerals, for example. Approximately 700-1,000 Rwandese live in Maine. During the pandemic, association members have been connected through WhatsApp and by phone to identify people who need help. Community members have volunteered to help with shopping, transportation, and translation of information into Kinyarwanda, when needed, such as explaining eligibility for stimulus funds. One of the Rwandan community’s biggest events of the year, the annual commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi, was cancelled due to COVID-19 (see page 8). 700-1,000 Rwandese live in Maine.
Muhidin D. Libah is the Executive Director of the Somali Bantu Association of Maine, which has been the center of the Somali Bantu community since 2005. Approximately 3,000 Somali Bantu live in the Lewiston/Auburn area. The office is at 145 Pierce Street, Suite 101, Lewiston, but it is temporarily closed during the pandemic. School meals continue to be distributed in front of the SBCA office and are unaffected by this closure. For direct support, please contact Muhidin Libah (207-344-7132) or email [email protected] with questions. The community feels very lucky to have funders who care about low-income communities in Maine, and who have donated food and nonfood items alike, including financial assistance. Maine Department of Health and Human Services has been helping effectively, and when the community asked schools to create a drive through area for volunteers to hand food assistance to parents, so the parents could stay in their cars and limit social interactions, the school obliged. Laptops distributed by the schools have been somewhat problematic in families where parents don’t read or write. Some of the kids use the laptops to watch videos but tell their parents they are studying. Community leaders are unable to assist because of social distancing. The farming season is off to a great start. The seedlings are coming up well, farmers are getting machinery and water pumps ready, manure is being spread in the fields, the soil will be tilled soon, and people are gearing up for a busy farming season. The association and the farmers will closely monitor the pandemic as the farming season approaches.
John Ochira is President of the South Sudanese Community of Maine. During the pandemic, Ochira and his team have worked hard to support the community in a number of ways, including filing for unemployment benefits, accessing food, helping with the census, and holding a number of virtual gatherings in order to connect as a community. Ochira points out that the South Sudanese have already been through many difficult times, including war. The fact that people are dying during the pandemic can be triggering for people who have endured so much adversity, he says, but he is confident the community will get through this time. Veeva Banga, who was born in South Sudan and loves sharing her culture through dance, has been leading an exercise class via Zoom every other Tuesday. This class is part of Gateway Community Service’s programming. The South Sudanese community posts regular updates on its Facebook page.