By Kathreen Harrison
Alain Jean Claude Nahimana arrived in Maine in 2010, seeking asylum from persecution in his homeland of Burundi. When he died on May 31, from complications of diabetes, he had achieved so much during the intervening ten years that his life was memorialized by many of Maine’s leading politicians, business executives, leaders of educational institutions, non-profits, advocacy groups, and community associations, as well as artists, devoted friends, and his loving family. On the national stage, which he had begun to occupy in his last years, he was remembered by the executive director of the nation’s leading immigrant advocacy coalition. Nahimana’s untimely death plunged many into mourning, but he is remembered as a leader with a clear vision and legacy whose life and achievements touched and improved the lives of countless others.
On November 4, 1970, Nahimana was born in Bujumbura, Burundi, to a diplomat father and a mother who was a well-known women’s rights advocate and former Chairperson of the Women’s League of Burundi. He was one of four children – two girls and two boys. He spent most of his childhood in Burundi, and attended high school in Switzerland, where his father served as Ambassador from Burundi. He went to college at the University of Burundi, where he majored in economics, and later launched a career as a successful businessman.
He also joined an opposition political party and was targeted by the ruling party, tortured, and imprisoned, a traumatic experience which changed the trajectory of his life and led to his flight from Burundi. He did not frequently share details of the trauma he experienced, even with his closest friends, but at a 2018 conference in Portland titled “Meeting the Mental and Physical Needs of Immigrants, Refugees, and Asylum Seekers in Maine,” where he was a panelist, Nahimana said, “An African man is supposed to be strong … [but] starting a new life is so difficult. How can you trust after experiencing so much trauma and loss?”
In the United States, Nahimana’s first landing place was San Diego, where his parents, sister Christine, and brother Didier were living, but after only two months, he moved to Portland. After receiving his work permit, he worked briefly for a transportation company, then moved into customer service at Time-Warner where, he told friends, customers ridiculed his accent. So he quit Time-Warner in short order, and eventually started two part-time jobs — with Maine People’s Alliance and Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC), where he became the Coalition’s first Coordinator.
Mufalo Chitam, current Executive Director of MIRC, credits Nahimana with playing “a pivotal role in MIRC’s growth.” Founded in 2005 by the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, “the Coalition tripled in size and grew power between 2012 and 2016, particularly under Alain’s leadership,” Chitam said. That’s when Nahimana left to co-found the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, with Damas Rugaba, and became Executive Director, a position he occupied until the time of his death. Currently, MIRC has 68 member organizations.
On June 5, at a tribute held for Nahimana at the Greater Immigrant Welcome Center, and broadcast widely via Zoom (available on the IWC’s website), Chitam enumerated some of Nahimana’s major advocacy successes as Coordinator of MIRC, which include passage of a Portland anti-racial profiling ordinance, the succesful defeat of numerous anti-immigrant bills, launch of the first New Mainers Political Action Committee, establishment of the Portland Community Plus Fund, and support for General Assistance for asylum seekers.
“Thousands of asylum seekers, including the 450 plus who were housed in the EXPO Center last summer, remain eligible for General Assistance, saving them from homelessness, because of the work of Alain Nahimana as MIRC’s first advocacy leader,” Chitam said.
A close friend of Nahimana is Antoine Bikamba, current President of the Rwandese Association of Maine. He said, “Communities didn’t often meet together and discuss issues. After Alain arrived in Maine, we started going to Augusta to advocate. He played a big role in bringing people together.”
Shima Kabirigi, who currently serves with Mary Allen Lindemann as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of the IWC, reflected on Nahimana’s vision as Coordinator of MIRC. “Under a government that at the time [in Maine] was anti-immigrant, Alain understood that there was power in numbers, and he knew it was important to leverage resources and networks in order to shift the narrative that was deeply embedded during the LePage years.”
Initial planning for the founding of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center took place in coffee shops and kitchens over a period of two years, while Nahimana was Coordinator of MIRC. Bikamba, who had been recruited by Nahimana to be a MIRC board member, remembered Nahimana talking about the importance of finding a space where immigrants could meet, gather, and develop projects. He introduced Nahimana to Rugaba, who at that time was President of the Rwandese Association of Maine. Nahimana himself was President of the Burundi Community of Maine from 2014-2016.
Rugaba recalled an exchange that launched the planning period for what later became the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center. “I remember telling Alain one day, ‘We’re like firefighters, always running around putting fires out. Let’s be proactive.’ The next day Alain called me and suggested meeting. He said, ‘I’ve been thinking about what you were saying.’…We began planning to create an organization for different immigrant groups to be able to meet, rather than work in silos, and create programming together. We wanted to show the immigrant presence here in Maine – to show that we are here, and here to stay. That we are part of the community.”
In 2016, Rugaba moved to Connecticut to pursue a work opportunity. The two men continued to collaborate during regular weekend trips back and forth between the two states, but Nahimana took the lead on the project. His focus was on developing strategy, seeking board members, designing and furnishing the space, and working with the graphic designer on the logo and promotional materials. Carl Lakari, Deb Rothernberg, Caroline Jovas, Antoine Bikamba, and Damas Rugaba were the founding board members.
“Our focus was always empowerment,” Rugaba recalled. “We saw that immigrant communities tended to hang together, and we wanted them to step outside their communities, network, meet and engage with others.” Rugaba moved back to Maine to help run the Center when it was launched in 2017.
In 2016, Kabirigi came on board as a volunteer coordinator to take on the task of facilitating conversations with community leaders – not an easy assignment, and especially not for a shy young woman, Kabirigi recalled. The goal was to develop a mission and organization that was rooted in the various priorities and aspirations of immigrants in Maine.
“We wanted the Center to reflect the myriad of ideas, priorities, and aspirations of various immigrant communities in Maine,” said Kabirigi. “Not everyone bought in, but we left the door open.” Kabirigi also played a pivotal role in providing the infrastructure for the space at 24 Preble Street. “We wanted an aspirational space, led by immigrants, to push against the anti-immigration narrative. We wanted the Center to push the needle on immigrant advocacy and innovation. Alain understood that in order to help immigrants build their lives and thrive here, the IWC needed to attract the private, the public, and the nonprofit sectors…. He wanted to create more seats around tables that open doors, change policies, and influence decisions.”
Adele Ngoy, Executive Director of Women United Around the World, a member organization of the IWC, described some of Nahimana’s core beliefs. “First, he believed in collaborating, despite differences in gender, beliefs, and race…. Second, he believed that we will not achieve our goals if we pull each other down…. Third, he said we must always push for excellence…. And finally, that we must always remember – even though we may have no money, even though we may not speak good English, we still have our dreams. We have our talents. And we have the support of our friends and our colleagues. We all have something to give to our new communities that will make them better places to live for everyone.”
Introducing Mary Allen Lindemann at 2018 Muskie Access to Justice Awards Dinner
“His vision was big, and it was really important, and it will be carried forward,” said Mary Allen Lindemann. “ ‘You can’t have an inclusive economy without an inclusive democracy.’ ‘It’s policy, not protest, that makes a difference.’ ‘The Power of We.’ These all became part of the vocabulary of everyone connected with the IWC.”
The Center’s three pillar programs are the Immigrant Business Hub, the iEnglish Project, and Citizenship & Civic Engagement. Rugaba said, “At this particular moment, we haven’t pinned down the future. This was to have been a year of developing and strengthening our three pillar programs, and the focus should remain on that despite the impact of the coronavirus and Alain’s death. We want to assure people that the work Alain started will continue. We want to make him proud and continue the work he started.”
“The Center will continue. It’s a big lift, but we have the most amazing team,” said Lindemann. “The staff has been incredible, and people are stepping forward with various levels of expertise, offering to help out. People believe in the vision, they know it’s the right thing, we just need a little time to reorganize. The life and the legacy will be carried forward.”
In addition to Nahimana’s work in Maine, he worked on the national level as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Partnership for New Americans. “Alain felt strongly that organizations and policy makers should be connected to a larger national network, that it was important to be at the table to put Maine on the map, that it was important to look beyond Maine into the national context and start to bridge and connect with national partners – to build a coalition in Maine and elevate their voices and priorities – say, ‘Here’s what we are doing in Maine, and here is why you should be investing in Maine,’ ” said Kabirigi.
Joshua Hoyt, Executive Director of the National Partnership for New Americans, said, “Alain came to the NPNA Board with a deep understanding of the challenges of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in the United States, and he understood that what immigrant families need – safety and security, support in learning English, help getting on a career ladder, and a good education for their children – often cannot be won without building and using political power. Alain built his life in the United States helping immigrants and refugees in Maine and across the country, and his tragic loss is sad news for both immigrants and our nation.”
Immigrant Resource Center of Maine’s Executive Director Fatuma Hussein reflected on Nahimana’s legacy. “Alain wanted us to be at the policy tables in Maine and across the nation, and now, 10 years after he arrived, we have the bridge, the stepping stones, to change the system.”
Nahimana’s death touched his family and his personal friends deeply, and many shared their grief as well as recollections of his temperament and particular tastes at a June 12 memorial service, which preceded the June 13 funeral service at St. Luke’s in Portland and his burial in San Diego.
“Alain enjoyed a well poured Guinness, his immaculately clean Mercedes, cigars at Calabash, and dancing at Bubbas,” Lindemann remembered.
“He was super sensitive,” Kabirigi said. “Once you got to sit with him you’d see he was kind, sweet, sensitive, and cracked a lot of jokes. He was also self-aware, and knew that he could be stubborn and hard-headed.”
Ngoy, who is a fashion designer, remembers meeting Nahimana at an event in 2012. “When I arrived I saw this Black man, well dressed, elegant in a suit – and you know how I like a nice suit! Over time, I came to understand that everything about Alain was about raising the bar. Anything Alain had his hands on was made even more special. Better because he was involved.”
Bikamba said, “If Alain chose you to be his friend, that meant he trusted you. We had so much fun together. He was there every time we had a family event. He liked to talk about politics, challenges in life, and argue about our views, which were different. We never spent more than two or three days without calling each other, or visiting. From the beginning, he wanted to see his family join him. When his sons got asylum, that was one of his happiest moments. He had been working to bring Princess, his daughter, here, too.”
“I have never known a man who loved his children or family more than Alain,” Lindemann said.
His brother, Didier, said, “Claude (he was known as Claude by the family) was smart, a trailblazer, a visionary. He always seemed like he was in a hurry, as if he saw the clock ticking down. Rest in power, Claude.”
His sister, Christine, added, “The many messages the family has received have been comforting, and a reminder of the impact Alain had on so many lives. He was a gift to all of us – a loving, caring, gentle, positive man, who was helpful, clever, joyful…. I could go on all day. He had a lot to give, and he did give it. I am happy to say my brother’s life was very well lived, and he accomplished his mission on earth. His legacy will continue on. In life we loved him dearly, and in death we love him still. He has a place in our hearts no one could ever fill. May he rest in peace, and God bless you all.”
Video courtesy of Egide Foxworth – many thanks for allowing us to share it here.