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Lawyer, employer encourage hiring more refugees

First refugees in Midcoast settled in Thomaston
By Jordan Bailey | Nov 24, 2016
Courtesy of: Episcopal Church of St. John Baptist A member of a Congolese family resettled in the Midcoast talks with the community at a welcome reception held at Watts Hall in Thomaston Nov. 13.

“Why are we so old?” immigration attorney Jennifer Atkinson asked a small crowd gathered Nov. 16 for a talk about her work, hosted by the Camden Conference at Rockport Opera House.

“Look around...” she said. “We’re white. We’re so old because we’re so white.”

She put the area’s demographics bluntly, calling the Midcoast “a bastion of whiteness” within the oldest and whitest state in the country. Knox and Waldo counties are tied, at 96.8 percent, for second-whitest county in the state, while neighboring Lincoln County is first at 96.9 percent.

While some residents might be content with this, Atkinson said it doesn’t bode well for Maine’s economy or its future.

Statistically speaking, there is a correlation between whiteness, oldness and slow population growth. The median age in the U.S. is 37.9, but among non-Hispanic whites it is 42, the highest of any race. Because whites make up only 64 percent of the population nationally, growth in minority groups can offset the slow population growth among the white segment. A 2011 Pew Research Center study found that racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 91.7 percent of the nation’s population growth in the previous decade.

Maine’s aging and decreasing population (the state had a net loss of 928 people last year) leads to cascading problems: low school enrollment, pressures on budgets, strains on services — especially health care — and declines in the working-age labor force. State economists and policymakers are raising concerns about the inability of Maine’s population to keep up with workforce demands. According to Charlie Colgan, former state economist and professor at University of Southern Maine Muskie Institute, the portion of the population aged 20-34 has declined by 20 percent in the last two decades.

Many politicians speak about the need to attract young people to the state, and there are conflicting opinions on why that is not happening.

“To grow we have to be willing to become more racially diverse,” Atkinson said, “because that’s where the growth is, in non-white communities.

“There’s always the option to reach out to refugees and asylum-seekers,” she added, fully disclosing that doing so would be good for her Friendship-based practice, but also would benefit employers and the community as a whole.

Refugees hired in Union

Chad Cloutier, owner of DLTC Healthcare Inc., hired a family of Congolese refugees to work at Crawford Commons nursing home in Union over the summer, and in doing so facilitated the first modern settlement of refugees to the Midcoast.

He said that he disagrees with Atkinson's assessment that Maine's labor shortage is related to demographics, but believes the state is not attracting or retaining young people because of "a higher tax burden, high housing costs and lower wage scales."

"In a lot of ways our service economy is not desirable to this generation of young people and therefore we have to address that by finding those willing and able to work in the service sector from all parts of the globe," he said.

DLTC operates nursing homes across the state, from Limestone to Stanford, and Cloutier said the company has had trouble finding workers, particularly in Knox County, where  there are so many seasonal jobs available.

“The health industry is struggling to find enough workers,” said Cloutier, who is also chairman of board of the Maine Health Care Association. “There are so many other choices for work, and not enough people in the workforce."

He sought help from Coastal Enterprises Inc. in Brunswick, an investor in rural development that also helps connect unemployed workers with jobs. They referred him to Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services, which contracts with the U.S. Department of State to resettle refugees.

Through Catholic Charities, he hired six refugees from one family who had been staying in refugee camps in Tanzania for years after fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Four months into their employment, he said, he is optimistic about the potential for refugees to help fill jobs elsewhere.

“They did have some experience in their job description,” he said. “More than anything, they had a willingness to learn and do the work. And they’ve done a good job.”

Cloutier said he will likely hire refugees at a new facility the company plans to build in another region of the state.

Catholic Charities is looking to settle people beyond the Portland and Lewiston areas because of the difficulty of finding affordable housing, particularly in Portland, but is hesitant to settle refugees in rural areas because of the lack of public transportation and the distance to medical services.

Hannah DeAngelis, assistant director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities, said the organization has been able to place several refugees beyond Portland and Lewiston: some in Madison to work at Backyard Farms and some in Augusta, where there is public transportation. In the Midcoast the difficulty is finding affordable housing.

“There are extremely kind and generous people in the area willing to house people,” she said, “but we are really looking for housing that clients can pay for themselves and be sustainable on their own means.”

For the Congolese family, DeAngelis said, a lot of things fell together to make the move to Thomaston possible. Cloutier was able to arrange housing, and there were six employable people in the family who could fill six full-time positions.

Cloutier also owns a commercial and residential rental company, and was able to provide housing for free to the family for the first three months. They are now paying rent at the property in Thomaston. He also arranged transportation to the nursing home, which the family pays for, and hosts English classes on site.

DeAngelis said to be successful employing refugees, employers would need to be willing to work closely with the organization’s case management staff, bringing them in to do cultural competency training and to provide interpretation services during training and orientation. It is also helpful if the employer provides English classes, she said.

As part of its contract with the federal government for refugee resettlement, Catholic Charities must provide core services within the first 90 days, including initial food and clothing, furniture, cultural orientation and registering children in school.

Both Cloutier and DeAngelis said the family so far has declined to speak to the press, but is focusing on getting basic needs met and acclimating to the area.

‘Tripping over each other’ to help

The Rev. Peter Jenks, rector at the Episcopal Church of St. John Baptist in Thomaston, said the community, particularly the school and the library, has done a phenomenal job in helping out the family. The Episcopal church, Adas Yoshuron Synogogue, Thomaston Baptist Church and Thomaston Federated Church have been coordinating support for the family as well.

“All this happened without preparation,” he said, “It was just, ‘Oh, look who’s here!’ Everyone is trying to help out, even tripping over each other to help. If they need bicycles, then 100 bicycles show up.”

He said he is trying to start a committee to welcome new immigrants to the community. This could be a way to coordinate efforts and be specific about what their needs are, with the goal of helping new immigrants become self-sufficient.

The Midcoast houses of worship organized a welcome dinner for the family Nov. 13 so the community could meet them, and so the family could be introduced to those who have been providing support.

“The dinner was phenomenal, and the family was very appreciative,” Jenks said. “It’s a delicate situation, because of all that has been going on in the country, but there is a need to share their amazing story. They were in a refugee camp for 20 years. It is an unbelievable story, and very moving.”

Richard McKusic of Thomaston Baptist Church said about 60 people of different faiths, “agnostics, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews,” attended the dinner, and listened to the Congolese family, who speak French, tell a little bit of their story through an interpreter.

Despite Governor Paul LePage's recent letter to President Barack Obama in which he stated that Maine was opting out of the federal refugee resettlement program, a Catholic Charities spokesperson told the Associated Press that the organization would continue settling refugees in Maine.

Atkinson said by phone Nov. 18 that since the election, there has been an uptick in the number of calls she is getting from permanent residents wanting to become full citizens.

“Some who were not sure if they wanted to proceed now do,” she said. “In some ways it has surprised me, because people with pretty secure status now feel vulnerable. If you are part of the immigration system in the U.S., it is pretty hard not to feel vulnerable now.”

Refugees may apply to become permanent residents after one year in the U.S. and citizens after five.

Cloutier, the nursing home owner, said his decision to hire the refugees was not politically motivated, nor was it motivated by a desire to increase diversity.

"I’m a Republican,” he offered, "and I think the immigration conversation often gets misconstrued. These folks from day one have had a job and a place to live and were contributing and helping themselves sustain their living environment.”

He noted that refugees have been vetted and their asylum applications approved before they come to the U.S.

“The story here so far is that there are options for workforce development,” Cloutier said. “It takes a little bit of work, but it’s doable if the company is willing.”

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Comments (3)
Posted by: Jim Gamage | Nov 24, 2016 19:42

What is the expected starting wage for the refugees?



Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Nov 24, 2016 13:43

What an inspiring story of what teamwork can accomplish.

Tripping over each other’ to help

The Rev. Peter Jenks, rector at the Episcopal Church of St. John Baptist in Thomaston, said the community, particularly the school and the library, has done a phenomenal job in helping out the family. The Episcopal church, Adas Yoshuron Synogogue, Thomaston Baptist Church and Thomaston Federated Church have been coordinating support for the family as well.

“All this happened without preparation,” he said, “It was just, ‘Oh, look who’s here!’ Everyone is trying to help out, even tripping over each other to help. If they need bicycles, then 100 bicycles show up.”

He said he is trying to start a committee to welcome new immigrants to the community. This could be a way to coordinate efforts and be specific about what their needs are, with the goal of helping new immigrants become self-sufficient.



Posted by: Francis Mazzeo, Jr. | Nov 24, 2016 11:30

Mr Cloutier, you need to convince "the Donald" not the good people of Maine.



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