Among those helping Maine’s new arrivals: Other immigrants

Why We Wrote This

It’s an age-old fear: There’s not enough good to go around. But scores of Mainers are rejecting a scarcity mindset as their city welcomes hundreds of asylum-seekers.

Elise Amendola/AP
A migrant woman and young boy prepare for rain outside the Portland Exposition Building in Portland, Maine, on June 13, 2019. Maine's largest city has repurposed the basketball arena as an emergency shelter in anticipation of hundreds of asylum-seekers who are headed to the state from the U.S. southern border. Most are arriving from Congo and Angola.

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On a recent afternoon, volunteers cooked 600 meals to be served at a local sports arena. Lined with cots instead of bleachers, the Portland Expo Center became an emergency shelter in June with the sudden arrival of Central African asylum-seekers. Several meal prep volunteers are asylum-seekers themselves. They slip in and out of French, Portuguese, and Lingala with the ease of changing aprons. Some have already found temporary housing. Yet day after day, they keep turning up to cook for fellow newcomers.

“My people,” a volunteer named Nathalie calls them. “As they eat and feel fed, I also feel better.”

Portland has gained at least 437 asylum-seekers in less than two months. Their arrival cued another surge: an outpouring of donations and volunteerism. Immigrant community leaders, who once sought fresh starts here themselves, have bridged resource gaps between the newcomers and the public’s generosity.

Maine resident Jeff Diggins has hosted three families in the past. A fiscal conservative from Texas, he acknowledges the complexity of the U.S. immigration system and values that asylum-seekers are in the country legally.

“I don’t think kindness is a limited resource,” says Mr. Diggins.

A pot of turkey and tomatoes, stewed with turmeric, needs stirring. The plantains are prepped, along with fish spiced with garlic and ginger. At Preble Street, a social service agency in Portland, Maine, fans meant to cool the kitchen’s heat amplify the aroma.

On a recent afternoon, a handful of volunteers cooked 600 meals to be served at a local sports arena. Lined with cots instead of bleachers, the Portland Expo Center became an emergency shelter in June for the sudden arrival of Central African asylum-seekers. The ethnic food is meant to replace fear of the unknown with the comfort of familiar flavors. Fufu, a starchy staple, is a favorite.

Several meal prep volunteers are asylum-seekers themselves. They slip in and out of French, Portuguese, and Lingala with the ease of changing aprons. Some have already found temporary housing. Yet day after day, they keep turning up to cook for fellow newcomers.

“My people,” a volunteer named Nathalie calls them. “As they eat and feel fed, I also feel better.”

Nathalie, an asylum-seeker, likes to stay active. As a nurse, 12-hour shifts conditioned her to work hard. Before Maine, she lived in South Africa after fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo 16 years ago.

Another Congolese asylum-seeker, Nicole, joins her on a break from the stove. She’s overjoyed to be in Portland, she says in French.

“It’s important to help, because we were also helped.”

Portland has gained at least 437 asylum-seekers in less than two months. Their arrival cued another surge: an outpouring of donations and volunteerism. Immigrant community leaders, who once sought fresh starts here themselves, have bridged resource gaps between the newcomers and the public’s generosity. The city has a Thursday deadline for vacating the emergency shelter, and other towns have begun to roll out welcome mats.

Portland “only has so many resources, so this community partnership is key,” city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin told the Monitor. Maine’s largest and most diverse city of 66,000 is applying for newly available funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help accommodate the asylees.

Seeking asylum is protected under federal and international law. More than 5,000 refugees have resettled in Maine in the past three decades, according to State Department data. Many of the new asylees in Portland are reportedly fleeing violence and persecution from Angola and Congo. The Monitor is using only asylum-seekers’ first names for their security.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills issued an emergency rule change to the state’s General Assistance program last month. Now, those who intend to apply for asylum are eligible for food, housing, and medical care vouchers.

Towns statewide can now receive reimbursement for accommodating asylum-seekers, which could lift some pressure off Portland. Yet some worry that moving away from the city’s established immigrant networks and legal resources presents hurdles to integration.

That’s why immigrant leaders like Claude Rwaganje have intervened as cultural brokers between officials and the new arrivals, and offering much-needed translation.

In 1996, Mr. Rwaganje sought asylum in Maine from Congo. He now leads ProsperityME, a nonprofit he founded to promote financial literacy for immigrants.

“We should really look into this [influx] as an opportunity,” says Mr. Rwaganje, stressing the “return on investment” that former asylees have contributed to the city.

More than $900,000 in private donations have been given to the city. Mainers have offered their time, too. More than 2,000 individuals expressed interest in volunteering at the Expo with United Way Portland. A local movie theater and bank partnered to offer free screenings of “The Lion King” – popcorn included – on an especially hot weekend. The nonprofit Cultivating Community has funneled food donations from 17 Maine farms to Preble Street’s kitchen.

“We need to take care of our own first”

Some conservative lawmakers and citizens disagree with extending state resources to the new Mainers.

“Once again the individuals who have been waiting for services will fall to the back of the bus,” said Republican state Rep. Beth O’Connor, the Portland Press Herald reported. “Any existing resources that are available at any time should be used on those individuals who are currently here and have been waiting.”

Guy Troiano, a landscaper, says he has nothing against immigrants. But he sees homelessness in Portland as an unsolved problem.

“We need to take care of our own first, then help who we can help after that,” he says.

Housing the newcomers is the most urgent challenge. Affordable housing is scant statewide. The city has found roofs for dozens of migrant families so far, including some at the city’s overflow shelter spaces. Some have moved to cities like Lewiston, home to a Somali refugee population. In Brunswick, a developer offered families rent-free stays for three months. Portland is racing against the clock to secure more: On Aug. 15, the Expo turns over to a local basketball team. As of Monday morning, 136 people remained at the sports arena.

According to Maine State Housing Authority, the agency’s use of one-time emergency funding (about $172,000) to subsidize rent for the families doesn’t jeopardize other Mainers seeking housing help. The funding and waitlists are separate.

Host Homes, a volunteer homestay program in Portland, is lightening the load. With guidance from immigrant leaders, at least 23 families have been placed in temporary host homes.

“I find that we are making it up as we go along, and we’re blessed that we have such a generous community and a capacity to do it,” says Chris Hall, general counsel for Greater Portland Council of Governments. 

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
Jeff Diggins and his daughter Eva enjoy a summer day with their dog at home in Yarmouth, Maine, Aug. 5, 2019. Mr. Diggins has hosted three asylum-seeking families through a local homestay program, and hopes to host more.

“I don’t think kindness is a limited resource”

The homestay pilot takes inspiration from the Yarmouth Compassionate Housing Initiative run by a local interfaith community.

“We’re walking the walk of welcoming strangers,” says co-coordinator Carla Hunt. “We’re just trying to shepherd them through to the point where they can be independent, because that is what they crave more than anything.”

Yarmouth resident Jeff Diggins has hosted three families in the past. He hopes for more.

“I don’t think kindness is a limited resource,” says Mr. Diggins, a father who is mostly retired from a finance career.

A fiscal conservative from Texas, he acknowledges the complexity of the U.S. immigration system. Yet he values that asylum-seekers are in the country legally, and says he’d gotten to know hard-working Portuguese immigrants on a previous job – “not as a label, but I knew them as people.”

Technology has proved a great equalizer for his family in navigating cross-cultural moments.

“We’d use Google Translate,” he says. “We’d set aside the rule that says no technology at the dinner table.”

Joe Conroy, who runs Preble Street’s soup kitchen and food pantries, says 1,200 daily meals are prepared for the nonprofit’s clients. The extra 600 daily meals for the asylum-seekers cost roughly $30,000. Donations, including a few goats, have helped defray costs.

“Resources are not so scarce that we can’t feed everyone who’s hungry, or shelter everyone who needs shelter,” says Mr. Conroy.

Deaths outnumber births in the Pine Tree State, which also boasts the highest median age and greatest share of baby boomers who are retiring. In a tight labor market, some employers have struggled to recruit workers.

“We’re completely reliant on other people moving here, whether from other parts of the U.S. or other parts of the world,” says Maine’s state economist Amanda Rector.

Nearly half of the asylum-seekers that Portland has processed since June are children, including newborns. The young group could bode well for Maine’s future workforce, Ms. Rector adds, and infuse diversity into one of the country’s whitest states.

“If you bring new people with new ideas, they start new types of businesses. ... That adds to the economy beyond just the relief we get from having a new influx of workers,” she says.

Individuals have up to a year to apply for asylum. Phil Mantis, legal director for Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, has found that many of their cases have yet to be filed in the overloaded immigration court system – a glitch that could deny them due process.

They’re also barred from working. Under federal law, asylum-seekers like Nathalie, the nurse from Congo, don’t qualify for a work permit until six months after they apply for asylum. They’re also ineligible for federal aid.

Khadija Ahmed sought asylum in the U.S. after fleeing Congo in 1999 during the Second Congo War. When she moved to Portland four years ago, she appreciated Preble Street’s soup kitchen meals so much that she didn’t want to eat for free. Ms. Ahmed has volunteered ever since, and manages the meal prep for the families at the Expo. 

“It’s a way of saying ‘I got you,’” she says. “It’s only going to get better.”

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