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. Farming season is starting well, Libah reports, and farmers’ markets are underway. The community is very excited about plans to purchase a 100-acre farm in Wales, which will provide the community with land for farming activities, as well as a place to relax and participate in healing activities, such as drumming and singing. “For the last 30 years, we have been refugees, moving through different towns in Somalia and living in refugee camps in neighboring Kenya. For 30 years we have been looking for a place we can call home,” Libah explained. “Home in our community means a place that is safe and secure, where we can farm freely and where we can exercise our cultural traditions. Getting this property will check all the boxes and, for the first time, we can have a place we call home.” The Somali Bantu Association of Maine website has a special button for donations toward the land purchase. Libah reports that some people still have not received unemployment benefits. Without assistance and advocacy, many members of the community will not be able to navigate contacting the Department of Labor. The DOL doesn’t answer the telephone, and so Libah has resorted to letter writing. Even then, he often hears nothing for three or four weeks. Libah says most community members hope to send their children back to school in September. Many don’t have the literacy that’s necessary for helping their children with computer-based learning. Hurdles include such basics as resetting passwords.
Philémon Dushimire is President of the Burundi Community Association of Maine (BCAM). Dushimire believes there are approximately 1,000 Burundians living in Maine, with a growing number in the Lewiston-Auburn area. The past month has been very difficult in the Burundi community, with the deaths of six people in one month here in Maine, sickness and death among friends and families in Burundi from COVID-19, and the death of the president of Burundi. In addition, the death of Alain Nahimana, a former president of BCAM, was a big loss. Many people in the community work front-line jobs here, including home care, which they know exposes them to the virus on a daily basis. In the community, there is a great deal of confusion and misinformation about whether workers are paid or not paid if they get sick, where testing is accessible, whether insurance is necessary for testing and treatment, if people without symptoms can be tested, and if recovery is possible for someone who tests positive for the virus. Many people are concerned that if they tell others about their symptoms, they will be stigmatized, and could end up unable to support their families if they are laid off from their jobs. The community needs resources to support those in financial need, as well as to help with costs associated with funerals. Recent protests following the death of George Floyd have been frightening for Burundians, many of whom fled Burundi because they were at risk from the police, only to find they are not safe from the police here in the United States, either.
John Ochira is President of the South Sudanese Community of Maine, which has been working hard to try and provide critical resources for community members in need. Unfortunately, these resources are in short supply. In collaboration with Presente!Maine, and the volunteer-ledFood Brigade effort, community members have been driving around to homes with elderly members and children and providing food, diapers, and other necessities. Major challenges include community members who have still not received unemployment benefits; sickness within large families and no space to isolate; food shortages; emotional distress. Culturally, South Sudanese do not like to ask others for assistance, and will only do so they have no other option. Ochira reports numerous cases of critical need. The community needs donations of laptops as well, now that so many facets of life have moved online. The community’s isolated older Mainers are lonely, and would benefit from being able to connect virtually with others, including national networks of South Sudanese immigrants. Parents are anxious about the upcoming school year. Many don’t have a background in technology, and were frustrated in the spring because they were unable to help their children with their education, although those in the community with a college education stepped up and tried to help families understand how to manage school assignments. Ochira continues to stress the importance of observing social distancing guidelines.
Mileina Beatrice is President of the Congolese Brazzaville Community of Maine, which serves new arrivals, refugees, and asylum seekers. Beatrice reports that the past month has been very difficult, and that the community is in distress and in need of more resources. Many families are in dire financial straits, because the parents work front-line jobs, and have either been laid off or are on sick leave, due to the virus. People report that they spend hours on the phone trying unsuccessfully to reach the Department of Labor. If they do get through, many say they are denied benefits. Community members don’t have a financial cushion, and they need help with housing, access to health care, and unemployment benefits. In addition, some people are afraid to seek medical attention because they fear their immigration status makes them vulnerable to deportation.
The President of the Maine Youth Network (MYN) is Mariam Mohamed and the Vice President is Mana Abdi. On Fridays at 7:00 p.m., MYN offers virtual classes on contemporary issues in Islam. MYN encourages readers to follow their social media sites, where they post information about classes and events, including webinars on pressing social issues, such as “Social Oppression and Black Lives” and “Juneteenth.” They plan a coat and boot drive later in the summer, in preparation for winter. MYN works to inspire academic excellence, encourage civic engagement, and enhance relations between parents and youth within immigrant communities.om 6:00-8:00 p.m. All are invited. Maine Youth Network is based at 991 Forest Ave., Portland.
Antoine Bikamba is the Interim President of the Rwandese Community Association of Maine. Approximately 700-1,000 Rwandese live in Maine. Bikamba reports that positive cases of COVID-19 are increasing in the community, mostly among those working front-line jobs. Culturally, people prefer to keep health troubles to themselves because of a stigma associated with becoming ill. But leaders are trying to convince community members to be open about health problems, to prevent community spread. The Association has been distributing masks and hand sanitizers to those in need, primarily elders.
Chris Myers Asch is Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Capital Area New Mainers Project (CANMP). CANMP is working with the Augusta Schools Department to offer an eight-week summer tutoring program at the Augusta Multicultural Center. The free program is open to all elementary and middle school English Language Learners in the Augusta area. It began in mid-June with three bilingual teachers, 15 families, and more than three dozen students. Following COVID guidelines, no more than two families can be in the Center at any one time. 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 also has 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 first language is not English.
Nsiona Nguizani is the president of the Angolan Community of Maine. He estimates that approximately 2,000 Angolans live in the Greater Portland area, with a growing community in Lewiston/Auburn as well, for a total of over 2,500 Angolans now living in Maine. Nguizani’s summary: We are living through terrible challenges. The effects of COVID-19 are like nothing we have ever experienced or seen before. ACM is trying to mitigate the situation for Angolan immigrants through its program FEED in order to transform the challenges associated with COVID-19 into opportunities so we can bounce back stronger and more vital than ever.
During the past few weeks, ACM has been in constant contact with Angolan immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.
1) We keep receiving distress calls (needs and issues) from our members through our COVID-19 Call Center.
2) We have launched the F.E.E.D. program [Find, Encounter, Ensure, Distribute] in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Brunswick, Lewiston, and Auburn to address our community’s current food needs.
3) We are assisting our members infected with COVID-19 with all facets of recovery (health, social, and financial recovery).
4) We will soon launch our mentoring/tutoring program and our children’s reading program by distributing 20 books per child in English and Portuguese.
5) We continue to deal with other issues pending since the period before COVID-19 (immigration, education, access, etc.)
COVID-19 is the biggest challenge in our lifetime, and the effects of this virus serve as an additional challenge for many refugee and immigrant communities. We know our self-sufficiency and integration will be harder because of this pandemic, but we are resilient people.