Claude Rwaganje arrived in Maine from DR Congo in 1996, almost twenty-two years ago. At that time there were very few Africans living in Maine. In fact, back then ‘from away’ was widely used as an expression to mean you were from a different part of the state, or from out of the state – it was not on anyone’s radar at that time that Maine would soon be welcoming new residents from Africa.
Mr. Rwaganje was forced to leave his homeland and seek safety here to protect himself. An activist from a young age, he was never shy about speaking out for justice and against mistreatment, and this made him a target. He left home in 1994, during the violent era of the African World War. He can still see in his mind’s eye the confused scene just before he fled his homeland – the burning houses, and the buses and trucks carrying guns and troops and women and children that poured into Bukawa, the town where he was attending college, and which was also the nearest town to the border with Rwanda on the Congolese side. Three college friends of his who did not leave, thinking they would be fine, were murdered during the violence of that period.
Mr. Rwaganje says of himself and of other African immigrants now living in Maine, “We are not here by choice, but because of what happened in our home countries. Unfortunately we can’t be home, because of what has happened. I would love to be in my home country to give my knowledge and skills back, but I can’t be there because it is too dangerous.”
The founder and Executive Director of Community Financial Literacy – on the occasion of its tenth anniversary just renamed ProsperityME – Mr. Rwaganje remembers the early waves of Somalis and Sudanese who starting coming to Maine in the early 2000’s. He also remembers when refugees and asylum seekers began to arrive in significant numbers from Burundi, DR Congo, Rwanda, and Angola early in 2010, 2011, and 2012. Life really started changing for African immigrants after that, and he notes with pleasure the much greater acceptance of diversity in the state now.
“We don’t want to be strangers in our own state,” he says. “I love Maine, I love people from Maine. I want to build the state together. We are here to contribute to Maine’s economy, a state that has embraced those of us who arrived in need.” Rwaganje mentions the demographics of the state and the important role new immigrants can play in filling jobs as they are vacated by aging workers. “We are here as contributors. It’s a win-win situation,” he remarks. As a side note he points out that this year very few new immigrants have reached Maine because of the decision by President Trump to slash refugee numbers.
Mr. Rwaganje has a wife and children, and the children are fully integrated into life here. In fact they are so integrated that the concern has become how to keep the children from forgetting Congolese culture completely. They speak English perfectly, and Mr. Rwaganje speaks English extremely well himself. He also speaks French, Kinyamulenge, Swahili, Kirundi, and Kinyarwanda. He notes that 90% of African immigrants arrive in this state with a good education behind them. He himself came to this country with studies in biology and pharmacy under his belt. After he arrived he got a degree in Business Administration at the University of Southern Maine and then an MBA.
Despite his education, when he arrived in this country everything was new. He moved here from a cash-based economy. He recounts some stories that serve to illuminate just how confusing life can be in a new country with a bank-based system. The stories also explain what led him to found CFL (now ProsperityME). At a meeting with a new employer soon after he arrived, the employer kept referring to ‘401K forms’, and he did not understand what those were. Finally it was explained that this had to do with ‘retirement’ – but that was also a concept he was not familiar with. Unable to make an educated decision about which plan to pick, he closed his eyes and picked funds blindly. He realized that if he was that confused, others would undoubtedly be confused as well.
Another story involved co-signing for someone who had no credit and who asked for his help buying a car. He did not know that by co-signing he was assuming responsibility for the bill. Stuck at first because the purchaser left the state without paying, he did find a legal way out of the situation, but realized there must be others like himself who could easily fall into financial ruin because they did not understand the American financial system.
In 2008 he decided to start a non-profit organization geared toward educating first generation immigrants about how to build quality lives. He wanted to help people invest for the future, reach the American dream, and build a more prosperous community. CFL has helped many people over the years in many different ways, such as through Individual Development Accounts (in partnership with CEI) that have helped fund education, small businesses, home purchases, and vehicle purchases; through financial literacy courses; and one-on-one financial coaching workshops, to cite just a few examples. CFL serves primarily refugees, immigrants, and asylees, but also local low-income individuals.
Mr. Rwaganje is quick to point out that he has not built the organization on his own and could not have done it alone. Partners have included Portland Housing Authority, which gave the fledgling enterprise its first home; Avesta Housing, which now provides comfortable space; ME State Housing Authority; Portland Adult Education. In addition, CFL has an outstanding board, whose members have done wonderful work through the years, and a strong staff. At the moment the organization has three full-time staff, one part-time staff person, and a consultant, in addition to Claude. There will be two new hires in the near future.
May 8th marked the 10th anniversary of the non-profit. Community members gathered at Thompson’s Point to celebrate with music, food, drinks, an awards presentation – and the unveiling of the new name, ProsperityME. Over the years the organization has grown greatly. Originally based exclusively in Portland, there is now a second location in Lewiston. ProperityME is now looking beyond financial literacy to community prosperity. There are four arms to the organization’s vision: financial education, career and job skills development, support for small businesses and entrepreneurs, and assistance for those seeking higher education.
“We are here as contributors,” Claude Rwaganje says of ProsperityME. “We employ Americans and immigrants. We help people invest in Maine. We serve.”