Strength in Unity
By Karen Cadbury
The Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC) is the convener of a statewide network of 73 organizations that represent diverse ethnic communities across Maine. The Coalition was originally founded by the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in 2005 and funded by the Maine People’s Resource Center (MPRC). Over the years, MIRC has grown significantly, from 20 to 73 member organizations, and has received its nonprofit designation. MIRC’s cooperating organizations support a variety of services, programs, and advocacy initiatives throughout Maine that are led primarily by people of color. The coalition has a social media following of almost 3,000.
MIRC concentrates on establishing and supporting “programs and policies that promote immigrant inclusion and integration.” The member groups include direct service and grassroots community organizations and a wide range of immigrant and advocacy groups. The core constituency served by MIRC are immigrants from diverse countries who live in Maine, including refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented individuals.
Mufalo Chitam, MIRC’s executive director, came to the United States from Zambia in 2000 with her husband and daughter. She is a graduate of the University of Zambia, or UNZA. Before leading MIRC’s efforts, Chitam’s first U.S. job was as an administrative assistant at the University of Southern Maine. She held similar roles at United Way of Greater Portland, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Kidney Foundation, Easter Seals Maine, and American Red Cross. She also was a program manager for Granite Bay Care, Inc., an agency providing services for adults with physical and mental disabilities. In 2017, concerned about the scarcity of Black African women in leadership positions, Chitam accepted the position as executive director of MIRC.
According to Chitam, MIRC’s advocacy primarily focuses on the following issues: federal policies regarding immigration; housing; transportation; child care and juvenile issues; MaineCare; travel bans; interpretation needs; workforce development; and credentialing and licensing. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chitham said, MIRC has focused on meeting the needs of those impacted by the virus, particularly in the form of food, electricity, rent, and other critical survival issues.
In the few short years that Chitam has headed the organization, MIRC has continued to develop an exemplary reputation for working effectively with many different types of organizations that serve immigrants, from large social service, government, and health agencies to small, one-person programs operated in urban and rural communities throughout Maine.
Dr. Hermeet Kohli, president of the MIRC’s board of directors, called Chitam her role model. “Trust me,” said Kohli, “she is so fierce and is a committed trailblazer. She is respected by everybody in this community. Her voice is valued immensely.”
Helping new refugees and asylum seekers with resettlement issues was MIRC’s initial goal, Chitham said. Because of the successful communication and many collaborations among its member organizations, MIRC has been able to put together teams among its member groups to help individuals obtain medical and social assistance during the pandemic. Working with its members, MIRC has been able to identify COVID exposures, arrange quarantines, and meet the basic survival needs of immigrants endangered by the virus.
“We had COVID challenges last year and again this year,” said Chitam,“and we’ve found that the virus has shone a light on the disparity that already exists [for immigrants] in the areas of health care, education, and economics. COVID is revealing all these issues.
Children learning at home due to COVID has demonstrated the lack of a good system to manage that. Immigrant parents can’t always help with school work due to language barriers. COVID has exposed other big challenges that immigrants face. “In healthcare, if you are undocumented, you don’t have access to regular medical care,” Chitham said. “You may get emergency healthcare, but you wouldn’t be able to get primary care. And everything that has to do with [treating] COVID has to do with relating to primary care doctors – vaccinations, medicines, hospital stays. So we’ve had to look at the systems.”
As MIRC has grown, the organization has made changes to its website for better visibility and has recently acquired new office space. The number of member organizations is growing, in part, because MIRC has taken responsibility for managing many of the smaller organizations, said Chitham. “We are assisting them with their finances, and with reporting and compliance issues, especially with the management of their grants and income.” With MIRC managing their finances, the smaller organizations can devote more time to addressing people’s needs. “A lot of our coalition organizations want this kind of help. It’s helping to create trust, so these smaller groups can be credible [with funders] and so foundations can be confident that the money they contribute is going where it is needed.”
If immigrants test positive or are exposed to COVID, they may lose their income. “Maybe they can tap into benefits, but they might have to be quarantined and can’t go back to work,” said Chitham. “Or they may be in jobs where they won’t get paid if they have to be quarantine. In these cases, immigrants need help getting General Assistance.”
As part of their process for setting 2021 policy priorities, MIRC has been holding listening sessions. They will post the priorities to the website. “Right now, MIRC is playing this very big role of convener,” said Chitam, to bring together member groups to work on specific projects, such as workforce development or integration. “At MIRC, we know where the needs are, who the people are, and the challenges.”
The 2010 U.S. Census reported 54,000 immigrants living in Maine; preliminary analysis of the new census projects close to 90,000 immigrants, said Chitam. “That is a very significant growth,” said Chitam. While immigrants remain a very small portion of Maine’s total population, the number has nearly doubled in the last decade.
Since much of the federal funding that supports COVID programs in Maine has not yet been renewed, Chitam described concern among the member organizations that funding could end before the virus is controlled. In the months ahead, MIRC will focus on ensuring that the funding continues.
After the past two years of MIRC’s significant growth and expansion, Chitham said, “we want to strengthen and continue the creative and effective collaborations that have been established.’ They also are concentrating on developing more efficient internal systems, hoping to purchase software to coordinate and manage member organizations, and for advocacy work, but that will require raising funds.
“The beauty of MIRC is that we are able to work with each other in a very unusual way,” said Chitham. “We have developed receptive relationships among members, so we know what each organization is doing. With our organizational structure, we can ask our members, ‘Who speaks Japanese?’ And then locate the right organization or person for the immigrant needing help. It’s been beautiful to see the resilience of our communities.” Chitham said member organizations are now working from the bottom up now, rather than MIRC working from the top down. “This is meaningful work.”
Dr. Hermeet Kohli, the president of MIRC’s board of directors, holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Louisville and University of Kentucky, and now serves as associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Southern Maine. Her research, teaching, and practice are with immigrants and asylum seekers. In addition to serving as board president, Kohli represents the member organization Gateway Community Services. She is the daughter of refugees from India.
“MIRC is growing,” said Kohli. “And, as the board president, I think a lot of our focus is on how to successfully deliver the mission of our organization. We want to help improve the social and economic conditions of immigrants in Maine and enhance their lives. This work requires sharing information and a lot of collaboration. Since joining the board, my focus has been to make sure that, as a coalition of organizations, we are ‘social-justice aligned.’ I want to ensure that our aspirations and all of our hard work are focused on social justice. We need to be working for antiracism and anti-discrimination measures. It’s a grim reality, but people who are not white, who are immigrants, are being affected more acutely by COVID than white people.
“Social justice and anti-racism is connected to everything we do. It’s not something we work on, it’s the framework for everything. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I think MIRC has a big role to play in Maine. We are already engaged with the Maine Department of Health and Human services, the business community, the legal community, and the school system – with all the major stakeholders. Our ambition is to keep building those alliances. The challenges are going to be making sure our voice is heard and ensuring our policies get drafted and promoted.”
Fatima Saidi is MIRC’s new grants coordinator. She is a refugee from Afghanistan, who moved to Pakistan when she was two but returned to Afghanistan after 9-11. Later, she and her family immigrated to the U.S. Saidi completed a year of high school in the U.S. and then attended Bates College in Lewiston, where she completed a double major in political science and religious studies.
“I have been very interested in immigration, because I applied for asylum in 2017 and then I got my green card,” said Saidi. “I’m grateful to have a college degree, and I also understand how hard it is for immigrants to navigate the system. I find the families who come to the U.S. amazing. Some were farmers and don’t read and write in their own native languages. Still, they navigate, not just the English language, but also the systems. I met an immigrant in Boston who couldn’t read and write, but he could drive. He had passed his driving test by memorizing this thick book of rules and regulations. I remembered that when I went to get my driving permit, I had found it was quite difficult. So it is not just that I can help immigrants in my job, but that they continually inspire me.
“Right now one of the things we are doing is working with the school system in Maine to empower immigrant parents. It’s hard to be a parent when you are working three or four jobs. And especially when the parents have to learn a [new educational] system, at the same time they have to teach their children. There might be seven, six, five kids in the same house. The kids might need to know the internet, and the parents might not know how it operates. Many of our immigrant parents didn’t know that if their kids were not in school on Zoom, they would be marked absent.
“I believe [going forward] there will be new immigrants coming, and that our member organizations will continue to collaborate. MIRC is the bridge between America and the immigrants. We have to connect them. The immigrants benefit from the community, but also, the community benefits a lot from the immigrants. Working at MIRC has been great.”
Jayde Biggert, an MIRC program associate, is originally from Eswatini (Swaziland), South Africa. She studied at Bates College, where she was a French major, and graduated at the beginning of the pandemic. At MIRC, in cooperation with Catholic Charities of Maine, and the Maine Center for Disease Control, Biggert has been working on providing assistance for immigrants who have been exposed to or contracted the virus. Her responsibilities have included monitoring immigrant community members who have tested positive and helping people effectively isolate somewhere in the community or in their homes.
“MIRC, working together with Catholic Charities, matches the needs of individuals with MIRC member organizations or state agencies that can provide immediate medical, social, or cultural support,” said Biggert. “For example, we might get an email referral or a submission from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, requesting services. We look at the person’s demographics and their cultural background, check to see if she or he is non-English speaking, review specific needs he or she might have, and then we find organizations that can help them. Right now, we are seeing a great need for food, especially for culturally appropriate food. When whole families have to quarantine, they need access to groceries – especially the types of food with which they are familiar. We are supporting this.”
Biggert has been working on COVID issues with more than 20 groups in the coalition. “Our organizations are pretty spread out, but we do a lot of work in Cumberland County, in the Portland area, and in York County. Through contracts with the state, we have been able to meet the needs of Maine’s immigrants, but the funds are running out, so we are using funds from grants to pay for or reimburse organizations for food expenses. We have also used gift cards to pay for food.
“Our communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. So we have been doing a lot of advocacy around racial justice and systemic racism. We’ve been tracking the disparities and putting the information up on our website to make it available to the public. A lot of our member organizations are working specifically on immigrant rights, but MIRC is focusing on racial justice issues.
“A large percent of Maine’s immigrant community are of African descent, and therefore the immigrant issues correlate strongly with racial justice issues.” Biggert noted that this past summer, MIRC refocused its programs to ensure that racial justice issues are at the heart of what the organization does.
MIRC’s policy committee and advocacy group develop the organization’s annual policy priorities and work primarily with legal issues. “Our member organizations are constantly sharing information back and forth,” she said. “When regulations are passed, our advocacy and policy groups condense the language, so everyone can comprehend the information. MIRC’s work in this area is very effective.
“Maine prides itself on having a growing multicultural population. But culturally and racially sensitive support is very much needed. It really is an incredible experience to be able to work at MIRC with all these very different people.”
ACLU of Maine • African Women and Development • Angolan Community Association of Maine • Aspire For Humanity Initiatives • Baha’i Community and Organic Change • Burundi Community Association of Maine • Cambodian Community Association of Maine • Capital Area New Mainers Project • CCM – Refugee and Immigration Services • Coastal Enterprises, Inc (CEI) • Choose Yourself • City of Portland – Minority Health Program • Congolese Brazzaville Community of Maine • Congolese Community of Maine • Congregation Bet Ha’am – Tikkun Olam Council • Cross-Cultural Consulting Group • Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, Refugee and Human Rights • Djibouti Community and Volunteer Services • Empower Immigrant Women(EIW) • First Parish UU Church • Frannie Peabody Center • Furniture Friends • Gateway Community Services Maine • Greater Portland Family Promise • Hispanic Ministry – Portland Diocese • Hope Acts • Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project • Immigrant Resource Center Of Maine • IN HER PRESENCE • Iraqi Community Association of Maine • Jewish Action Maine • Ladder to the Moon Network • Latinx Family Wellness & Recreation • Light Mission Church • Mahoro Maine Association • Maine Access Immigrant Network (MAIN) • Maine Business Immigration Coalition • Maine Citizens for Clean Elections – LWV • Maine Community Integration • Maine Council of Churches • Maine Equal Justice Partners • Maine Immigrant & Refugee Services • Maine Mobile Health Program • Maine People’s Alliance • Maine Unitarian Universalist State Advocacy • Maine Women’s Lobby • Mano en Mano / Hand in Hand • NAACP • Network & Scholarships for Maine Immigrants Org • New England Djibouti Community • New Mainer Tenants Association • New Mainers PAC • New Mainers Resource Center-Portland Adult Ed. • Office of Maine Refugee Services-CCM • Portland Friends Meeting • Preble Street • Presente!ME • Prosperity Maine • Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland • Rwandese Community Association of Maine • Somali Bantu Community Association • Somali Community Center of Maine • South Sudanese Community Association of Maine • Southern Maine Community College • Southern Maine Workers Center • Sudanese Roots • Unified Asian Communities • Welcoming Immigrants Network (WIN) of Greater Portland • Welcoming Immigrants, Our New Neighbors • Welcoming the Stranger • WIN – Bangor • YMCA of Southern Maine • YWCA Central Maine