By Stephanie Harp 

In some of Maine’s smaller municipalities, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are arriving to make new lives for themselves and their families – far from the population, transportation, and service centers of Portland, South Portland, and Lewiston-Auburn. Life in Bath, Brunswick, Augusta, Waterville, and the midcoast area is quieter and slower paced, presenting both advantages and disadvantages.  

“There are people popping up in these small towns,” said Chris Asch, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Capital Area New Mainers Project. “The resettlement agencies … have been looking far afield from Portland and Lewiston-Auburn because they have to, because there’s not much [housing] available and what is available is very expensive.” CANMP works in Augusta and Waterville, with families from Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco, Syria, and – more recently – Ukraine, along with some who are Congolese.  

Bath-Brunswick saw an influx of new, multilingual residents in 2019, after the so-called “Expo Summer.” Carol Kalajainen is Vice Chair of MidCoast New Mainers Group that helped settle families at The Landing, a multi-use complex redeveloped at the former Brunswick Naval Shipyard. She estimated that 20-25 families moved into the small apartments and a few others moved to Bath. More families are arriving as the southern Maine shelters are closing. “Social workers and friends and the families themselves go where they can find an empty apartment,” she said, or might move in with someone they know. (Just before press time, the city of Portland announced it would be reopening the Expo to asylum seekers.) 

In recent years a small number of people from Ukraine and Africa has moved into the stretch of coast between Thomaston and Camden. About seven years ago, a Congolese refugee family whom Catholic Charities settled in Thomaston connected with a local church, which organized a community welcome event.“From there we started to knit together the pieces to make it possible for them,” said Chris Banks of Connecting Across Cultures (CAC), a Camden-based volunteer network that helps New Mainers in the midcoast. The multigenerational family had school-age children, toddlers, and a grandmother. Local individuals with various areas of expertise helped the family navigate the school system, find childcare for the youngest, enroll the children in extracurricular and summer camp activities, practice English.  

“Lack of transportation impedes independence, impedes socialization, impedes knowledge of the community. All of those things are impeded by lack of access to the bus or the center of town.”

—Carol Kalajainen

“They lived just around the corner from me,” Banks said. “I was kind of on call – they didn’t know about using the stove, they had electrical issues, they weren’t familiar with our foods.” Others helped the father get a permit and learn to drive, and held a fundraiser to purchase a car. The loose, volunteer coalition eventually became CAC, which has helped other families as well.  

Transportation challenges 

Transportation is a major issue in smaller areas. “There’s nothing in this area – Camden, Thomaston, Rockland, Rockport, Belfast – nothing for public transport,” Banks said. “That’s been a huge part of our work because there’s a huge amount of driving involved.” Every week a committee member organizes a detailed volunteer driver schedule for medical and school appointments, grocery shopping, and other needs.  

“Transportation is huge because without transportation, you can’t get to a job,” said Asch at CANMP. Other necessities like English classes and child care may not be nearby either. “So that’s the hard thing that resettlement agencies are struggling with, or our volunteers need to step in and provide these services if they can.” Volunteer networks can be rewarding for participants but difficult to sustain.  

Kennebec Valley Community Action Program has the Kennebec Explorer with several routes in and between Augusta and Waterville, but hours and coverage are limited. Neither Augusta nor Waterville has enough population base for a public transportation system. “Lack of a reliable public transportation network really hinders low-income people of all kinds, but particularly refugee and immigrant populations,” said Asch.  

Bath City Bus has two weekday routes, service to Bath Iron Works, and goes to Mid Coast Hospital by advance request, limitations that make it not always practical.  

When asylum-seeking families arrived at The Landing in 2019, Brunswick’s Link bus service was also limited. “They did a lot of work and revamped it,” Carol Kalajainen said. “Now it runs every hour [and] there are more stops inside The Landing to where people would need to go,” such as the welcome center, hospital, grocery store, and connections to inter-city and interstate buses and Amtrak’s Downeaster train. Even with the more extensive schedule, “if you can only go where the bus goes once an hour from 7 or 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., that really limits the access to jobs,” she said. “Lack of transportation impedes independence, impedes socialization, impedes knowledge of the community. All of those things are impeded by lack of access to the bus or the center of town.”  

Siobhan Whalen is Refugee Resettlement Program Manager at the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine. She praised the Brunswick Link for a model she thinks other small municipalities could replicate. “I think they are really engaged with the newcomer community,” she said. But she acknowledged that getting a license and car are high priorities for JCA’s clients in these areas.  

Under current Maine law, many immigrants are prevented from getting driver’s licenses. A bill before the Maine Legislature would allow all Maine residents who can prove their identity and residency to take the driver’s test and, if they pass, get a license and buy insurance. Nineteen other states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia have this policy; Maine and New Hampshire are the only New England ones that do not.  

Volunteers greet new arrivals in Brunswick in 2019

But driving is a difficult option. “They have to pass the test and it’s very hard, even if they have access to translated documents. It’s very hard if your English isn’t very good,” said Asch. Some adult education programs offer free driving lessons for adults; elsewhere, adults must pay for new or “refresher” lessons; state law requires teens wanting a license to attend driver’s education, which costs over $500. “And then, if you do all that, you have to get a car and insure it, which is really pricey. Plus maintenance, gas, all of that. That’s difficult,” he added. 

 MidCoast New Mainers Group offers partial scholarships for driver education and the cost of a driver’s license for new immigrants in their coverage area, paying 80% of fees. “This is a way in which we can help folks in the community, for the community to be safer because the drivers are safer,” said Kalajainen. 

Finding community 

Smaller areas offer advantages. “I think because we have had such few families in the midcoast, we are able to provide … one-on-one support,” said Brenda Squibb, a CAC volunteer. “Our area also provides a more small town, village feel with easy access to nature and rural settings. … Everything is on a smaller scale and can be less intimidating to recent arrivals who have already had an arduous journey to simply arrive in our state.”  

One asylum seeker in the midcoast said she is quickly learning English because she lives in a small town. “My friends who live in Portland can only speak a phrase or two, even though they arrived at the same time as me. … In Portland there are interpreters. People there can help you and do things for you. You are surrounded by your community. You remain dependent.  But when you don’t have a choice, you learn quickly. And having more English permits you to get a better job.”  

A sense of community is the very reason that some new arrivals leave smaller areas for bigger population centers. “Having a community is like a chicken and egg. How do you build a community without people staying?” said Chris Asch at CANMP. “We’ve had as many as five or six families, and that’s not enough to cultivate a community. So one by one they all wound up in Portland.” Now Augusta is home to about 30 Syrian families. “People move to Augusta because there’s a community,” he said. “Somewhere between six and 15 families is the nucleus, the critical mass you need to attract more people to come and stay.”  

In Brunswick, Carol Kalajainen estimates that of the 40-50 families MidCoast New Mainers Group has helped since 2019, as many as 70% are still in the area. 

CAC members enjoying a picnic

Small towns have opportunities to provide warm, welcoming places, said Siobhan Whalen of JCA, pointing to recent efforts in Brunswick and Waterville. “I think that there’s a lot of opportunities for smaller municipalities to learn best practices from places like Portland, who have gone through this process and have some innovative and really amazing things in place.”