Mayor Ethan K. Strimling of Portland opened Friday’s meeting at Merrill Auditorium with Governor Mills, state and city officials, and community leaders by saying, “It takes a village … and it is remarkable to see how our village has risen up. It’s been an incredible effort.”
Strimling was referring to the informal coalition of city and community organizations that has stepped up to meet the immediate needs of the 227 African asylum seekers who have arrived in Portland so far this week from the southern border. Governor Mills, who requested the meeting in order to have an opportunity to hear from those who have been working on the ground to address the situation, emphasized that the new families who have arrived in Maine “need our help. They are fleeing violence and cruelty … in pursuit of the liberty and freedom that are the cornerstones of our country.” She pledged that Maine would help Portland, though she was not ready yet to offer specifics.
Nsiona Nguizani, President of the Angolan Association of Maine, estimates that 60% of the new arrivals are children between the ages of 0 and 18. The majority have traveled from Africa to Maine as families. Mufalo Chitam, Executive Director of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, reports that most of the families have between three and seven members. The majority of the newcomers say that they are from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola, and that they flew from Africa to South America to escape violence, then traveled – mostly on foot – through many countries over a period of months before reaching the southern border of the United States. They speak Portuguese, French, or Lingala. The Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition has provided volunteer interpreters to help city officials, Red Cross staff, Maine Emergency Management Agency personnel, Preble Street staff, CDC staff, WIC staff, and others communicate with the asylum seekers, who are being housed at the Portland Exposition Center. Approximately 41 people have left the Expo Center and are continuing on to Canada.
Some of the organizations that have played important roles in caring for the migrants are Mercy Hospital, which has provided bath towels; Maine Med, which has provided blankets and bed linens; UNUM, which has partnered with Poland Spring Water to provide palettes of water, and has also provided tv’s and game consoles; Hannaford, which has donated fruit and other nutritional snacks, and is on deck to help in other ways; United Way, which is vetting volunteers to be sure the children and others housed at the Expo Center are kept safe. Additionally, many community members have volunteered time for tasks such as meeting newcomers at the bus station, playing with children, answering questions, and serving food. The City of Portland set up a “Text to Donate” system, and has collected over $200K in just a few days.
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, Democrat from the 1st District, also at the meeting, emphasized that the current arrivals present Maine with a wonderful opportunity to strengthen the workforce. “Maine is ageing fast … without the alternative of Mainers having more babies really fast, we need newcomers!” she said.
Melissa Smith, CEO of WEX, also at the meeting, agreed, encouraging those at the meeting to “Take this as an opportunity to build on our workforce.” Adam Lee, Chairman of Lee Auto, responding to a question later in the evening, said, “In a time of a declining population, Maine needs people! And beyond the economic need, there is a moral need to help these immigrants … They have risked their lives to get here, now let’s help them get settled, learn English and view them as the future employees and citizens we need.”
Interested in volunteering to help the families housed at the Expo shelter in Portland? Follow the link https://docs.google.com/…/1FAIpQLSdzafY8Ksy0H_rRMP…/viewform To donate to the fund created by the City of Portland to help support the asylum seekers TEXT THE WORD “EXPO” t0 91999 or send checks to: City of Portland; City Managers Office, Room 208; 389 Congress Street; Portland, ME 04101. Please make sure checks say “to support asylum seekers” in the memo field.