During Maine’s “Expo Summer” of 2019, Mufalo Chitam, Executive Director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC), in company with other immigrant leaders, was at the hub of efforts that helped approximately 500 asylum seekers who arrived in Portland over the space of a few months, seeking refuge.
Over the past year, Chitam and other immigrant leaders have been working hard again to help over 500 more asylum seekers who have arrived in Portland since the pandemic began. Most were originally from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Haiti. Their journeys were perilous, and many spent time in detention in the U.S. before making it to Maine.
This time, because of COVID-19, the scenario is different from pre-pandemic 2019. There is no single exposition building where hundreds of people are housed together. Instead, individuals and families are scattered across Portland, South Portland, and other communities in budget motels, paid for by the City of Portland. “It’s like lots of mini Expos,” Chitam said. “And it’s very makeshift, very splintered.”
As the number of arrivals has grown, and the availability of housing has shrunk, so has concern. Nonprofit service providers are struggling to meet basic needs, but their resources are grossly inadequate. The situation is dire, with hunger, inadequate clothing, boredom (the newcomers are not allowed to work), and ill health plaguing the new arrivals. The scattered nature of the housing makes efforts to help even more exhausting. “The motels were supposed to have been short-term,” Chitam said, but because of the housing shortage, many of the asylum seekers have been living in the motels for many months, some a full year.
Adopt a Family
MIRC is spearheading an effort to provide winter clothes, boots, gloves, socks, blankets, and gift cards for asylum seekers in the homeless shelters at motels, as well as for those new Afghan arrivals who need help. MIRC is looking for businesses, churches, nonprofits, companies, and individuals to adopt a family for the holiday season.
To participate, contact:
Service providers are concerned that the health of the arrivals may be deteriorating. They spoke of people losing weight, and of children without shoes. “I don’t have food for my baby,” one mother told Chitam. The motels have no cooking facilities, other than microwaves, so most families eat mostly cold food.
“It’s shocking,” said Martha Stein, Executive Director of Hope Acts, whose services are focused on asylum seekers.
Providers who are regularly at the motels as part of service work, including vaccination, include Presente Maine, Angolan Community, Maine Access Immigrant Network, MIRC, Maine Association for New Americans, Gateway Community Services, and ProsperityME.
“It’s important to get people into places where wraparound services can be provided,” Chitam said. With winter rapidly approaching, the need is more urgent everyday.