By Stephanie Harp

In January 2021, Claudette Ndayininahaze became the first executive director of In Her Presence, the Portland-based nonprofit that brings together immigrant women from across communities and generations. Founded six years ago by Ndayininahaze and Abusana Micky Bondo, In Her Presence (IHP) strives to ensure that Maine’s economic agenda includes the aspirations and needs of immigrant women.

“It has been my passion,” Ndayininahaze said. “It’s really embedded in my blood — starting that organization and looking at how we can create the space for women and families so they can sustain themselves and become self-sufficient.” IHP works to create spaces that support women’s empowerment and personal ambitions, without losing their unique identities, and to connect immigrant women and girls with each other so they can address common challenges and issues using their collective power.

With 90 women currently active in their contextual English conversation projects – with an estimated total reach of more than 700 individuals – IHP needed more than its active board, partner organizations, and large group of dedicated volunteers. It was time for an executive director. “It became really so hard to manage all the programs and to get consistency, and also to assess, and measure, and really keep looking at performance and evaluation based on need assessments,” Ndayininahaze said. “And then, of course, we needed someone who could oversee all the programs, and see how we can provide stability and sustainability for the organization.” She likes to keep her eye on the big picture. “How do we increase capacity building? How do we increase women’s leadership? And how do we inspire the community – because we have the ability to do it.”

Senior Class pre-pandemic

IHP has steadily grown since its 2015 beginning, when 12 women participated in a yoga class at Portland Parkside Neighborhood Center, with yoga mats donated by the Yarmouth Women’s Group. Yoga was intended to help women from immigrant communities with stress management. As IHP added programs based on the women’s needs, more and more began participating.

“We kept growing and growing, and as we were growing, our women became the ambassadors in the community. They were the ones really doing the outreach,” she said. “It’s a sign that they understand the mission and the vision for the organization, and they can see the added value they are getting from the program.” A native of Burundi who has been in the U.S. since 2011, Ndayininahaze and IHP co-founder Micky Bondo have experienced immigration themselves, and understand what is most helpful to recent arrivals. Bondo has become IHP’s program director.

The primary need is language. IHP offers an extensive contextual English language acquisition program. “Everything is turning around that,” Ndayininahaze said, with a variety of topical programs built on language learning. Current IHP participants include women from 16 countries, who speak as many as 20 total languages. Many could read and write in English before they arrived, but didn’t have experience speaking it, hence the need for contextual conversation skills. Through expanding their programs, IHP wants to offer access to speech therapy for women whose first languages don’t include some of the sounds necessary in English, and who need help with pronunciation and accent development. Speech therapy is quite expensive, she said. Gaining a basic understanding of the necessary sounds would require about four hours per week for eight weeks.

In Her Presence also has a health care component so women and communities can access crucial information about COVID and other health issues.

In addition to helping with language acquisition, providing health care information, and paying constant attention to social justice and equity, a primary IHP program is cultural brokering services for individuals and employers. “That cultural broker component includes, of course, cross-cultural communication first,” Ndayininahaze said. “Because we work with career consultants, we also work with employers. When they hire someone, they don’t know who [the individuals] are. They need to know our needs, and we also need to get to know their needs.” She knows that employers sometimes have difficulty reaching out and finding new employees. “Now we are kind of selling the idea that we can recruit, we can do the outreach.”

IHP can help employers understand how best to train a new employee who is a member of an immigrant community. The organization already has placed five interns with Allagash Brewing Company, a connection that stems from Ndayininahaze’s background working in the beer and soft drink industry in Burundi. “When I came here, I was looking to be in the same field. So I went to Allagash, looking for a job,” she said. “I asked the question, ‘How do you support the community?’ because I was thinking about In Her Presence. They said, ‘Yes, we support the community.’ This is how we connected. And then we became friends and now we work together.” IHP works with Hannaford Brothers grocery stores, too, based on connections from an IHP career coach who is retired from 35 years in human resources at Hannaford.

With Ndayininahaze’s extensive experience as a culture broker in intercultural communication, she hopes to expand IHP’s fee-based cultural broker services for businesses and nonprofits. This serves the dual purpose of focusing on the needs and contributions of marginalized groups entering the dominant culture, and simultaneously educate and support organizations to create new climates and cultures that acknowledge and adapt to others from diverse backgrounds.

“They are entering the dominant culture, which is really so hard. By educating [the employer] and supporting the organization to create that new environment and culture, they are going to be able to adapt themselves. This is where we are reducing inequities and bias, and then we can promote equity.” As IHP helps employers increase their understanding and knowledge about their new employees, the process builds relationships and trust. IHP calls this dual focus Client Centered and Community Centered.

Hand-in-hand with cultural brokering is career planning. IHP’s “Charting Your Course” program has formed a partnership with ProsperityME to help women increase confidence, acquire financial pathways, identify short-term and long-term goals, and achieve them. “Raising their confidence first is really key. How do you raise your confidence and advocate for yourself? And even know what kind of goals and dreams you are looking for? It’s so hard to identify,” Ndayininahaze said. “You need someone who can be your coach and who knows the system. This is why we have a number of career consultants who are the bridge between our women and community members, and also with the business employers and organizations. They work on a professional resume with someone. They work on different teams to raise that knowledge and confidence for our women and community members. And then they try to see how they can attract employers responding to the skills of our women and community members.”

This past year, IHP has prioritized the needs of new Mainers and other families through the various challenges presented by the closing of schools, remote learning, job losses, lack of child care upon returning to work, food insecurity, and lack of access to transportation, along with the significant isolation everyone experienced, exacerbated by those who struggle with language acquisition.

As In Her Presence looks to do even more of the necessary work to help members of immigrant communities, capacity building is a priority for the next two or three years to ensure long-term sustainability. Ndayininahaze has many plans for strengthening programs, promoting consistency, and improving financial sustainability. “Then we can focus and develop, and really impact the community and what we are working toward,” she said. Being full time will allow her to oversee all IHP components. Raising the visibility of IHP programs will provide a platform for women and their families to create career pathways and learn tools and skills to navigate the employment sector with confidence. Expanding the formalized, contextualized, conversational English curriculum based on participants’ short- and long-term goals reduces language barriers, allowing successful integration into the community and accelerating career fulfillment opportunities.

For now, as the new executive director and IHP’s only employee, she has more than enough to keep her busy.
For information about In Her Presence:, (207) 347-9891, [email protected].

Vaccine Q&A

AIDS, HIV, Ebola, and so many other diseases have killed and killed again. Why weren’t vaccines made to eradicate these devastating diseases, and why is a vaccine for COVID-19 already on the market?
There is a vaccine for Ebola which is rushed to areas when there is an outbreak. Scientists have been trying to make a vaccine for HIV for many years, but it has been difficult. Several are now in clinical trials and will hopefully prove safe and effective. The reason the vaccine for COVID was made so quickly is that cases of this disease spread extremely fast around the entire world. Because COVID-19 spreads so easily from person to person, and there were outbreaks all around the world, it was declared a global health emergency. That way more money and resources were poured into the effort than for any previous vaccine. These efforts took place in countries around the world, and scientists were better able to work together to come up with effective vaccines and treatments more quickly.

Aren’t there any other effective drugs for COVID-19 besides the vaccine?
Unfortunately, no. The vaccine is by far the most effective at preventing severe disease and death. We don’t yet have any other drugs besides the vaccine to prevent COVID-19. There are drugs that can be given to people once they get sick with COVID. These medications can help you feel better faster and get less sick, but they can’t stop you from getting COVID-19.

On social media networks, it appears that Coca-Cola, motor oil, and plants all produce positive COVID-19 test results. Why?
There is a lot of misinformation on social media, and it is important to look carefully at where or who the information is coming from. The types of tests used in each of the social media “fake news” reports were rapid tests that needed to be conducted carefully with the right amount of time spent processing samples in the correct way. Several investigations have demonstrated that the test was not used in the correct way when testing for COVID-19 in things such as Coca-Cola or motor oil. This means that the test was falsely positive and incorrect.

Credible sources of information about COVID-19 we recommend are:
• U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
• The World Health Organization (WHO)
• Maine CDC
• Your healthcare provider or doctor

What happens if I refuse to take the vaccine? Can they force me to get vaccinated? What are the consequences if I say no?
No one can force you to get the vaccine if you don’t want to. There are no consequences if you say no to the vaccine. It is not mandatory.

Why do we still need to wear a mask, even after being vaccinated?
The vaccines are not perfect. A very small number of people, even if vaccinated, might still be able to pick up the virus, carry it, and give it to others. It can take up to 2 weeks after your second dose of the vaccine before you are fully protected. It will take time for everyone who wants to be vaccinated to get vaccinated, so you are helping to keep others who are not yet vaccinated safe.

The best ways to protect yourself from COVID-19 are wearing a mask, social distancing, not touching your face, eyes, mouth, or nose, and washing your hands frequently, especially before eating.
It is important to continue these healthy behaviors, even after you have been vaccinated. While these behaviors help stop the spread of the virus, the past year has shown us that they are not enough to end the pandemic. Vaccinating large numbers of people is the best and fastest way to return to life as we knew it before COVID-19.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the COVID-19 vaccine?

The advantages of the vaccine are:
• Protection from infection with COVID-19.
• If you do get infected, it will be less severe.
• You will be less likely to make your family or friends sick if you are infected.
You will help keep other people who might not be able to get the vaccine (very sick people or babies) healthy and safe.

The disadvantages of the vaccine are:
• It is not 100% effective.
• We don’t know how long protection (immunity) lasts.
It is possible that you may need to get a booster shot, like a tetanus shot.

• There is a very, very small chance that you could have an allergic reaction to the shot.
• You may feel tired, have a headache, a low fever, and a sore arm for one or two days after getting the vaccine.

A man in South Africa received the vaccine and died. Why?
It is very hard to answer this question without more information. We do not know how long after receiving the vaccine he died, what he died from, and whether the vaccine was related to his death in any way. More than 381.2 million doses have been given worldwide since the end of December 2020. The vaccines approved in the U.S. were tested on more than 44,000 people of different ages and races. No increased risk of death was observed. It is very unlikely that this man’s death was caused by the vaccine.

These questions were developed by participants of In Her Presence classes.
Responses were provided by the Health Care Team.