Many organizations have been working extremely hard the past six months to support Maine’s immigrant communities in a variety of different ways. Here is a sampling of some of these organizations, and the important work they have been doing. Some are immigrant-led organizations, and others are strong allies. Most of these organizations welcome volunteers, as well as support, if you are so inclined. The majority are members of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC), a statewide coalition of approximately 70 member organizations.
Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition
Since March, Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC) has played a key role in COVID-19 relief efforts within the immigrant community. The organization has collaborated with community organizations that have worked tirelessly to provide critical services including cultural brokering, quarantine support, food assistance, protective supplies, and educational support. MIRC has also been a driving force in advocating for racial justice and for the needs of communities of color. MIRC Executive Director Mufalo Chitam spoke before the legislature’s Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs to urge the Mills Administration to address systemic racism in Maine, and to request that communities of color be considered a priority when budgeting decisions are made for the federal CARES Act. MIRC also co-organized a press briefing that provided a public platform for Black and brown people to talk about their experiences with COVID-19 and to highlight the disproportionate impact on their communities.
As a continued partnership with Bates College and thanks to a PPP loan, MIRC hired three summer interns – Higera Sevigny, Oo Meh, and Imtithal Hassan who helped take on a summer project of researching responses to racial and ethnic inequities in the pandemic. They studied states’ responses to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BIPOC communities. Nationwide, Black individuals are dying at 2.5 times the rate of white people. While Black Mainers make up only 1.6% of the state’s population, they account for almost 25% of Maine’s positive cases. In response to these injustices, many states have declared racism a public health crisis and have created health equity task forces. Maine has not done this. In Maine, individuals from communities of color often work frontline jobs, in unsafe conditions, and lack paid sick leave. Financial hardships, food and job insecurities, language barriers, and lower quality of education are among some of the reasons for the racial disparities.
Personal Reflections of Higera Sevigny: As a young Black woman, having come to the U.S. as a refugee and lived in Maine for most of my life – where I’m often in white-dominated spaces – it has been amazing to feel represented in an environment that supports and uplifts Black voices. During my time at MIRC, I have taken great interest in the research, and hope what we have learned will aid MIRC in advancing immigration policy in Maine and advocating for racial justice. COVID-19 has exacerbated the racial disparities in our inequitable healthcare system. A blind eye is often turned to the root causes: systemic racism and implicit biases. The first step is to acknowledge that these racial disparities have less to do with individual behavior and more to do with discriminatory policies and unconscious bias. As a minority, a Mainer, and the daughter of two immigrant parents, I have seen first-hand the effects of COVID-19 in my community. New Jersey’s governor publicly acknowledged that “COVID-19 did not create the inequalities in our society, but it laid them bare,” and New Jersey has taken steps to address disparities by requiring hospitals to report demographic data, including the race and ethnicity of those who have tested positive, died from COVID-19, or been turned away from testing. Maine must fully acknowledge racial inequities and implement measures that protect those most vulnerable. https://maineimmigrantrights.org/
Furniture Friends provides donated furniture to people in need throughout the Greater Portland area. The central tenet of the organization is that everyone deserves a safe and comfortable home regardless of circumstances, and the mission statement is “Creating Homes. Rebuilding Lives.” Furniture Friends accepts donations of gently used, essential household furniture such as beds, bureaus, dining tables, chairs, and sofas from individuals and businesses throughout southern Maine. All the donations are stored temporarily at a warehouse in Westbrook, where they are carefully inspected and cleaned. Then individuals and families who are referred to Furniture Friends by over 120 social service partner agencies – because they can’t afford furniture on their own – request particular kinds of furniture, and the match is made. With the help of donors and volunteers, Furniture Friends provided furniture to over 640 families in 2019.
COVID-19 required modification to normal operations to ensure the safety of clients, volunteers, and staff. The biggest change was the suspension of the use of volunteers, who normally pick up and deliver the furniture and work in the warehouse. Although capacity has been reduced as a result, the organization is still working hard to get furniture to their clients. Donors and clients alike are asked to schedule appointments to come to the warehouse to drop off or pick up furniture. Appointments can often be scheduled within a day or two of referrals, and clients are able to choose the furniture they would like from the showroom, quickly and easily. For clients without access to transportation, Furniture Friends schedules contactless, curbside drop-off of furniture, and sometimes is also able to schedule contactless pick-up of furniture donations.
If you or your family needs furniture, please have a case manager or other provider make a referral for you. To those who have supported our work in the past, or continue to do so now, we thank you! For more information about Furniture Friends: https://www.furniturefriends.org, 207-210-3140, [email protected].
Gateway Community Services
When the pandemic first hit, Gateway Community Services Maine (GCSM), with branches in Portland, Lewiston, and Augusta, introduced programming that was held virtually so that community members would be able to continue to connect. This programming included painting classes, dance classes, yoga sessions, current events discussions, movie and game nights – all held on Zoom or other virtual platforms. As the warm weather arrived, Gateway turned its attention to other ways of supporting young people during such this challenging time.
GCSM recognized that young people play an important role in community safety, and collaborated with Lewiston-based Fowsia Musse, from Maine Community Integration, to create a COVID-19 Youth Coalition (CYC). The CYC consists of 20 young community leaders who spend 8-10 hours per week to disseminate reliable information about COVID-19 to young people in immigrant communities. CYC members share information through many platforms, including social media, text, phone calls, videos, and in person at protests.
In addition to their leadership in COVID-19 education and prevention, CYC members have led conversations about racial equity and anti-racism within immigrant communities. In partnership with CYC, GCSM has been able to distribute over 2,500 reusable masks throughout Greater Portland, Lewiston, and Auburn. The masks were sewn by members of the community and purchased from them.
Both the Youth Coalition (initially a five-week pilot, and now a pillar of the organization) and the mask distribution efforts have been made possible by support from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, Maine Humanities Council, the Haymarket Foundation, League of Conservation Voters, the Tides Foundation, and Catholic Charities of Maine. The Coalition is committed to celebrating immigrant youth voices.
CSM continues to provide youth and young adult peer mentoring services to those between the ages of 15-24 who have arrived in the U.S within a window of approximately the past five years. These mentorship relationships have proven especially important in these times. https://gcsmaine.org/
The League of Women Voters
The League of Women Voters of the Portland Area has developed a comprehensive training program for organizations interested in learning how to plan and host a moderated forum or debate for the upcoming and future elections. The hope is that community support and social justice-oriented organizations will host election forums for their members. The “Election Forums 101” training is designed to prepare members of these organizations to plan and host their own forums or debates in anticipation of the November 3 election. The program is designed for all members of the event planning team and includes detailed guidance, including planning, working with candidates, generating questions, selecting a format, and best practices in moderating. Participants will learn how to moderate an event, either live or online. Originally designed as a live event, the training has been adapted to an online format consisting of two 2-hour sessions.
For more information or to schedule a training, please contact Sue Robins, League of Women Voters Portland Area; [email protected].
Hope Acts exists to serve the basic needs of the Greater Portland community’s newest asylum seekers. While the organization is best known for Hope House, its apartment building that provides a home for 13 New Mainers, the organization also offers English classes and social services that help asylum seekers prepare for independent living in Maine.
Hope House – Since 2013, 70 asylum seekers have called Hope House their first American home. Hope House is the only housing in Maine specifically for asylum seekers. Residents receive one-on-one support and cultural and educational activities in a warm, family-like environment.
Hope House English Language Program (HHELP) – HHELP offers the opportunity for beginner and intermediate adult English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students to develop and practice reading, writing, listening, and speaking English in small, supportive classes.
Since COVID-19 ended in-person classes, HHELP has been offered remotely. Thanks to generous supporters and partners, we have been able to offer solutions (internet access, phone data minutes, and use of laptops) for students lacking technology to participate in classes.
In 2019, 130 students from 18 different countries participated in HHELP classes.
Asylum Seeker Assistance Program (ASAP) – ASAP was designed to be a no-barrier, drop-in service for asylum seekers needing help accessing and navigating resources such as housing and employment. Last year, the ASAP program also began assisting clients with federal work permit applications. In 2019, staff and volunteers worked with over 250 clients, including 33 families with a total of 78 children. In just four months last year, we helped 185 clients complete work permit applications.
Since COVID-19 made many in-person services impossible, Hope Acts pitched a large canopy in the backyard to serve clients outdoors. Some mornings, students sit under the canopy to access wifi and participate in classes. On Wednesday afternoons, masked staff and volunteers sit outdoors, completing work permits and answering clients’ questions. Indoors, two staff members work the printer and copier, and pass paperwork and documents in baskets through an open window.
Welcome the Stranger
Welcome the Stranger (WTS) knows it takes a village to support asylum seekers, and WTS offers one piece of that support. In 2016, seeking to help newly arrived individuals and families from central African countries, a small group of Portland residents created WTS, a mentoring program that partners local volunteers with mentees in what the group calls “cross-cultural friendships.”
The beauty of the mentoring relationship is that each mentor-mentee pair creates their own relationship; each match or partnership looks different. However, the primary goal of WTS is to provide a friend for New Mainers going through what is a challenging and sometimes difficult transition to a new life. Mentoring activities might include connecting people to unfamiliar community resources; learning and practicing English; figuring out the transportation system; finding housing, furniture, jobs, and warm clothes and boots. Mentors and mentees also enjoy fun activities together, such as snow-tubing, apple picking, time at the beach, and celebrating American holidays.
WTS recruits volunteer mentors through friends, word-of-mouth, faith groups, and other community organizations. New mentors are given a brief orientation, matched with an individual or family, and then provided ongoing support (with occasional training workshops on various topics), support groups, an active email listserv, and a WTS web page that lists community resources. WTS works closely with many other community organizations to help provide support for asylum seekers.
To date, WTS has served 380 asylum-seeking families, and currently has 200 active matches. Of course, COVID-19 has altered many relationships, and now most involve online communication and contactless drop-offs of donated items like microwaves or clothing – distanced partnering, in other words. But need remains high during these difficult times, and WTS remains committed to being available to help.
Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI) is a nonprofit community development organization that helps entrepreneurs start and grow businesses. CEI’s mission is to build a more equitable economy by focusing on good jobs, environmentally sustainable enterprises, and shared prosperity. Through its StartSmart program, CEI offers free and confidential business advice to immigrants about starting or growing a business. Topics for advising can include developing or evaluating a business plan; marketing and advertising assistance; location review; support with permits, licensing, bookkeeping or taxes; credit-building guidance; and completing finance applications. Interpreters are available. To date, StartSmart has assisted over 1,500 individuals from 92 countries. If you are an immigrant or refugee starting a business anywhere in Maine, StartSmart can help you. CEI also offers several financing options to meet business capital needs, including the “Wicked Fast” loans – fast-track microloans (up to $25,000) for existing and start-up businesses, with decisions typically made within three business days. CEI also offers a fee-for-service financing product for business owners who cannot utilize interest-based loans due to religious restrictions. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, CEI has been working closely with all of its clients to help them pivot their business offerings to adjust to new guidelines, access federal relief programs, or seek modifications to their loans to help them weather the impacts of the pandemic.
Maine Association of New Americans
Maine Association for New Americans (MANA) is an immigrant-led, multiracial organization that seeks to empower immigrants and their families by raising awareness of individual and collective trauma and how these affect lives; providing resources to expand resilience-building strategies; and connecting people with their peers across cultures.
During the pandemic, in collaboration with immigrant-owned small businesses and local nonprofit organizations, MANA has been delivering medications and groceries – with an emphasis on culturally-specific foods – to immigrants in the Greater Portland area. MANA has also collaborated with other organizations to create and deliver multilingual and culturally tailored materials about COVID-19 spread prevention, and mental and emotional resilience.
MANA has developed a new program, “Resilient New Americans,” which focuses on cultivating resilience through becoming aware of the place of trauma in impacting lives. This is a multilingual and culturally tailored program and is offered both in-person and online from the Greater Portland area.
MANA welcomes inquiries and interest in becoming involved: [email protected]; 207- 387-0749 (text/voice); Twitter @MANAMaine; Facebook @MaineMANA.
Mid Coast New Mainers Group
The Mid Coast New Mainers Group (MCNMG) offers support to immigrant families that are newly settled in Bath, Brunswick, and Topsham. This all-volunteer group works to build inclusive, multicultural communities where everyone feels safe and welcome. Group members help locate housing and medical care, provide family mentor teams, assist in finding work opportunities, and connect adults and children with education and language learning opportunities. MCNMG builds connections between New Mainers and local community organizations and services such as the library, food bank, and police, and in doing so hopes to foster mutual understanding and further integrate newcomers into their communities.
Odette Zouri, a member of the MCHMG board, contributed these remarks: “In my dual capacity as the first person to benefit from the support of MCNMG as I resettled my family in midcoast Maine, and as a new member of the MCNMG board, I want to recognize the efforts of the Mid Coast New Mainers Group, as well as the greater midcoast community, in welcoming my family and other New Mainer families to life in Maine. Since my family arrived in December 2017, MCNMG has helped more than 10 other families from Angola, Burundi, Burkina Faso, DRC, and Gabon. The organization has done so much to facilitate my own family’s integration – from improving my children’s English writing and reading skills through the help of Midcoast Literacy to helping my own education, from day one until my entrance into UMA Brunswick Center’s first nursing program cohort. One of the biggest challenges new arrivals face is housing, but MCNMG found an apartment I could afford for my family, and landlords who are really supportive of our community. I highly recommend that immigrants look around the state and reach out to support networks like MCNMG. This group of wonderful people and their community partners have made adaptation much easier for us, and our children have felt included at school and supported when they face discrimination from classmates. https://www.mcnmg.org/
The Maine Unitarian Universalist State Advocacy Network
The Maine Unitarian Universalist State Advocacy Network (MUUSAN) is a statewide advocacy and public policy network anchored in the Unitarian Universalist faith and connecting Maine’s 25 UU congregations in active legislative ministry. MUUSAN welcomes all who share its values. The organization joined the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition because one of MUUSAN’s areas of primary focus is racial, indigenous, and immigrant justice. The organization supports and advocates for legislation and policies that recognize the inherent worth and dignity of our immigrant neighbors, and which advances the rights and well-being of immigrants as they become established and valued members of our communities. MUUSAN also strives to educate its members and other Maine residents about how they can welcome and support their immigrant neighbors and has made relevant resources available on its website at www.muusan.org. (Its 2-year old Maine Immigrant Justice Resource List is being revised as we speak!) https://www.muusan.org/
In Her Presence
In Her Presence (IHP) serves approximately 250 women and children representing 70 households from 15 African countries as well as San Salvador, Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine. These IHP families live in family shelters (3), senior housing (14), and low-income housing (53) in Portland, South Portland, Scarborough, and Westbrook. Since the beginning of the pandemic, IHP’s network of volunteers and partners has worked to mitigate the impact of the crisis on the women, seniors, children, and families IHP serves. The need for assistance has been great – for food, social, emotional, and cultural support, as well as help navigating the process of applying for benefits.
Some focus areas for support have been developing a public health education campaign to ensure all IHP participants know how to protect themselves and their families and keep their home environments safe; checking in on individual participants to find out their unique needs; providing culturally appropriate food (the type of food provided by mainstream food pantries often is not culturally appropriate for immigrant and refugee communities); protecting and supporting the mental well-being of women and families; providing supplemental childcare and transportation support to allow 25 mothers with school-age children, who are home due to school closings, to continue to work; delivering food and other essentials (while respecting social distance) to families; purchasing supplemental supports such as phone cards and food cards; running a storage unit (in a donated U-Haul rental truck) stocked with basics for participants to safely access; and an IHP COVID-19 Facebook resource for posting updates and sharing locations for finding needed resources, as well as techniques for decreasing emotional anxiety and stress (in French, Portuguese, and Swahili). The Facebook posts also include resources for helping IHP participants support their children educationally.
A number of organizations have helped support IHP with donations of food, diapers, and other essentials. These include Wayside Food Programs, the Jewish Community Alliance, Maine Needs, and Eastpoint Christian Church. IHP women have also been engaged in helping others by sewing handmade masks, which they donate to Preble Street and Wayside
Although most people might associate an arts agency with visual arts only, Creative Portland promotes and serves artists of all artistic disciplines and genres. Two years ago, Ms Minot launched Hear Here, a local annual talent showcase at Merrill Auditorium to promote Portland’s diverse performing arts talents. Performers and artists included Rwandan dancers, a Flamenco dancer, Burundian drummers, a digital music composer, and a maestro conductor of the USM Chamber Singers. 300 complimentary tickets were offered to attend the live performance at Merrill Auditorium, representing diverse cultures and communities.
In addition to the annual Hear Here showcase, Creative Portland worked closely with Alain Nahimana, former executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, to curate art for sale by immigrant artists in their offices on Preble Street. Today fiscal sponsorship agreements are in place with Black Artists Forum, Black Youth Fund, Immigrant Music Connection, Freedom & Captivity, and Batimbo United.
If you are interested in receiving a monthly arts update or in serving on a curatorial team for visual or performing artists, Creative Portland welcomes your interest and inquiries. [email protected].
Maine MultiCultural Center
In addition to providing referral services to area immigrants, the Maine MultiCultural Center (MMCC) is also involved in community outreach and education. MMCC’s Education Committee has offered many in-person workshops for area teachers on how to teach effectively in a multicultural classroom. The committee has also hosted monthly Community Forums which have featured a variety of immigrant and multicultural issues. Since the pandemic shut-down in mid-March, MMCC has been working at transferring its community outreach work to a virtual platform. Not only has this allowed us to continue to deliver our programming, but it has also expanded our potential audience. This past summer, led by local educator Stephanie Hendrix, MMCC hosted a virtual book club for teachers. Over the course of 5 weekly sessions, teachers gathered over Zoom to discuss the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Ms. Hendrix followed the series with a wrap up session on how to address race issues in the classroom, and what resources are available for doing that. In September, MMCC will begin offering its monthly Community Forums via Zoom and Facebook Live. On September 23, from 6:00 – 7:30 pm, Attorney Beth Stickney from Maine Business Immigration Coalition (MeBIC) will talk on the direction in which immigration law and policy is headed.
For more information visit our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/mainemulticulturalcenter A presentation on voting rights by representatives from the League of Women Voters is planned for October.