By Georges Budagu Makoko
Hundreds of new arrivals from DR Congo, Angola, Haiti, and other countries of origin have arrived in the greater Portland area over the course of the pandemic. While the news of their arrival has not created the same buzz that surrounded the arrival of asylum seekers in 2019, it is time that it did. The arrivals include over 500 women, men, and children who have been living in budget motels in the greater Portland area – many for months.
In mid-November, I visited with some of these asylum seekers, and was able to get a hint of the conditions in which they are living. I was hit again with the deep emotion of how it feels to lose the comfort of one’s own home and be forced to start a new life in a strange country with limited resources and possibilities.
During my visit, I saw people coming in and out of rooms, children playing joyfully, pregnant women looking very tired. One of the men shared his experience with me. He and his wife and two kids arrived on July 30 of this year. The man spoke excellent French. He said that he is from Kinshasa, DR Congo. When I asked him how his family got here, he said that it was a long and risky journey, but he is grateful that he is here, and that his family is finally safe. However, he also said he really needs help. He asked for a caseworker, who can help him get his feet on the ground – beginning with finding housing.
When he first arrived, he said his family was placed in one crowded room, and that their living conditions were made especially hard because they were not able to cook hot meals. He said that most of the people in the motels have not had a hot meal in months. While General Assistance provides food vouchers, without cooking facilities, people are going hungry.
When hundreds of asylum seekers arrived in Portland in 2019, they were housed at the Portland Expo for several months. At that time, a task force was created, the Red Cross and other emergency services were called in, and over the course of three months, the asylum seekers were resettled in different cities and towns.
But during the current crisis, the pandemic has prevented congregate makeshift shelters, and the state has not responded with a robust plan. The City of Portland has been housing the asylum seekers in motels – their focus is on finding housing, which is nearly impossible in such a tight housing market. Recently, approximately 20 families were moved to budget motels in Old Orchard Beach, with no access to transportation.
Mufalo Chitam, Executive Director of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, along with others involved in helping the asylum seekers, are calling for the state to respond more energetically to the crisis. Chitam said the needs of the arrivals include housing, regular access to cooked meals, medical care, legal assistance, access to transportation, and cultural brokers to help with the adjustment to life in Maine.
“Happy is the hand that gives than the one that receives” says the Christian Bible. I have lived in Maine for almost 20 years, and I have seen the generosity of Mainers many times. I hope that the people who have come to us in such need are in good hands, and that they will receive the support that they need.