Sixty-five asylum seekers, primarily Central Africans from Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Angola have called Hope House in Portland their first American home since the renovated building opened its doors exclusively to asylum seekers in 2013. Currently, Hope House residents hail from DRC, Rwanda, and Angola. The only residential program for adult asylum seekers in Maine, Hope House accommodates 13 residents at a time.
The housing is intended to be transitional, providing community living, a warm atmosphere, and support services for single asylum seekers during the first challenging phase of their lives in Maine, while they wait for work authorization papers, acclimate to a new culture, and learn English. The average stay is one year, with residents moving out soon after they have begun working, and when they have saved enough money to live independently.
“We provide a family environment, a home,” Hope House Executive Director Martha Stein explained. “We are much more than an apartment building. In fact, it’s bittersweet when someone moves out. We feel proud, but we miss them when they go.”
Hope House is operated by the nonprofit Hope Acts. Richard and Teresa Berman purchased the building, a former Lutheran church at 14 Sherman Street, for the purpose of providing transitional housing and programming for asylum seekers. The Bermans renovated the building, and in 2013 leased it to Hope Acts for a five-year period, at no cost. The lease was renewed for a second five-year period in fall of 2018. The Bermans intend for Hope House to serve as a model for an effective way to address the problems associated with homelessness among adult asylum seekers.
“We would love to have room for everyone at Hope House — have another building, say yes to everyone who walks through the door — but we do not have the resources,” Ms. Stein said.
Hope Acts offers English classes through its Hope House English Language Program (HHELP). The classes are open to residents and non-residents alike. In 2018, 100 beginner and intermediate students attended the small classes, which focus on practical communication skills and conversation, as well as reading, writing, and comprehension..
“It is wonderful to see how much people progress in a year, how hard they study, how everyone wants to work and get a good job,” said Ms. Stein.
HHELP summer classes start July 8. Beginner and advanced beginner classes are on Mondays and Wednesdays, and intermediate and advanced intermediate classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays. All classes run from 9-11:30 a.m. This summer, Hope House residents will participate in a pilot program of Voxy, a digital training program offered in partnership with the iEnglish Project of the Greater Immigrant Welcome Center.
At the end-of-semester celebration that took place June 19, Benedicte, a current resident, who was originally from DRC, shared her thoughts in English. “My hope is that, with education and English, all of us will be able to realize our dreams in America,” she said.
Last fall, Hope Acts launched the Asylum Seeker Assistance Program (ASAP), in partnership with Gateway Community Services. Open to any asylum seeker, ASAP is staffed by social work interns from the University of Southern Maine, who receive clinical supervision from Gateway. Interns help asylum seekers in many ways, such as looking for housing, applying for jobs, reading mail, calling landlords, filling out work authorization papers, contacting hospitals and doctors, driving people around, picking up prescriptions, and helping people fill out forms.
ASAP has grown to include community volunteers, including a large group from the family mentoring group Welcoming the Stranger, able to assist asylum seekers complete work authorization (EAD) forms. Asylum seekers work with the volunteers and interns to help with French and Portuguese translation.
“The ASAP is such a great experience for everyone,” said Ms. Stein. “We are able to do more as an organization because of the ASAP program, the social work interns get valuable experience working with immigrants, and the immigrants receive practical help. It’s a win-win-win,” she said. Individuals and families are welcome at ASAP, which operates from noon to 3 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays. No appointment is needed.
Eliodor Leite, originally from Angola, is the Program and Resident Assistant at Hope House. He was a teacher and coordinator at Instituto Médio Agrário do Kwanza-Norte in Angola. He is involved in every aspect of Hope House, including working with teachers, translating, and interviewing prospective tenants. He also coordinates some of the cultural programming.
Hope House’s educational and cultural events are intended to strengthen relationships and celebrate the cultures of people from around the world. Events range from hosting meals to monthly French-English exchanges, which offer games and conversation and are open to the public. These exchanges are popular with language teachers and asylum seekers alike. The Greater Portland Community has been very welcoming to asylum seekers, and Hope House residents have benefited from the generosity of local theaters, music groups, museums, and sports teams, all of which have invited residents as guests to their venues.
Hope House welcomes volunteers as mentors, translators, and English teachers, or to help residents who are moving into their own apartments. For information about volunteering, or about summer English classes, please contact Carolyn Graney, the Hope Acts Program Manager, at [email protected] or 207-274-6005.
To make a donation to Hope Acts, mail a check to Hope Acts, P.O. Box 7615, Portland, ME 04112, or donate online at www.hopeacts.org/give.