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State, cities work with nonprofits to welcome new arrivals

By Kathreen Harrison | Jul 03, 2019
Courtesy of: Laura deDoes Newly arrived immigrant children dance at the Portland Exposition Center, where they are being housed temporarily.

The phenomenon of refugees fleeing persecution and violence and rebuilding their lives in  Maine is not new. However, the sheer number of people who arrived in a little more than a week – close to 300 African-born asylum seekers came to Portland between Sunday, June 9, and Tuesday, June 18 – is a first for Maine, and has galvanized public attention both within and outside the state.

The majority of the newcomers arrived in family groups, with young children in tow. Most said they are from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola, and that they flew to South America to escape violence and persecution and then traveled – often on foot – through many countries over a period of months, before reaching the southern border of the United States. The majority speak Portuguese, French, or Lingala, and very little English. However, according to Beth Stickney, executive director of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition, the new arrivals are eager to learn. “Individuals who arrived in the U.S. less than two weeks ago are already trying to learn English and are happy to practice the words they have learned so far,” she said.

Most traveled to Portland by bus. According to two family shelter employees who were at the Greyhound station to meet and transport arrivals on the afternoon of June 12, many arrived so exhausted that they fell asleep almost immediately, right in the lobby of the family shelter, before being moved to the Portland Exposition Building. The city of Portland is temporarily housing people in the Exposition Building as a makeshift shelter.

Jessica Grondin, director of communications for the city of Portland, said that as of Monday, July 1, a total of 273 people, most in family groups, were staying at the Expo Center. Some families have moved on, most likely either to stay with people they know, or to continue on to Canada.

Gov. Janet Mills has responded to the arrival of the African asylum-seekers by pledging the state’s support. At a meeting at Merrill Auditorium Friday, June 14, she said, “This is not a political issue. This is a humanitarian issue.” She noted that the families housed at the Exposition Center are “People. People who need our help. People who are fleeing violence, cruelty, bloodshed.”

Stickney stressed the potential of the new arrivals to help Maine down the road. “These asylum seeking individuals are all of working age, and can’t wait to become productive,” she said. “In every Maine county but two, there have been more deaths than births for several years running, and net population loss.”

The workforce is on the minds of business leaders throughout the state. Adam D. Lee, chairman Lee Auto Malls, said, “In a time of a declining population, Maine needs people. I know cafe owners that are considering closing because they cannot find employees. I have read about B&Bs that are not sure they can open because they cannot find enough employees. Maine needs people.”

Maine’s newest residents have received a warm welcome from both local and foreign-born Mainers. As of July 1, the city of Portland had received close to $500,000 in donations. People from more than 30 states and 226 Maine towns have sent donations by text to donate to a program set up by the city.

Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, an immigrant-led coalition of 57 member organizations, stepped up to the plate, even before the first families arrived. Led by Executive Director Mufalo Chitam, MIRC coordinated donations of time by volunteer interpreters, most of whom were immigrants themselves, as well as donations of in-kind goods ranging from clothing to diapers. MIRC has formed committees to handle financial management and fundraising, supplies and donations, legal and interpretation services, food, and the special needs of women and children.

The Angolan Community of Maine and the Congolese Community of Maine, two more immigrant organizations, have also set up GoFundMe fundraising accounts for the new arrivals. All funds raised will be used to support the recent immigrants, they say.

Mills emphasized that Portland was not going to be left on its own to integrate the new arrivals, though she has not yet shared what the practical response of the state will be. She said, “It’s not just an issue that Portland is going to deal with alone … I urge other communities to step up to the plate and contribute their assistance, as well.”

The South Portland City Council has already done that, having voted June 19 to allocate up to $40,000 to the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project to help the immigrants with legal fees as they apply for asylum. According to the American Immigration Council, “Immigrants with attorneys fare better at every stage of the court process.” Westbrook is considering whether – and how – to help.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings announced June 19 that the city is focused on “finding and providing more long-term housing solutions.” Ms. Grondin noted in a June 19 news release that at an emergency meeting of the Greater Portland Council of Government’s Metro Regional Coalition (GPCOG), “members of (Portland’s) neighboring cities and towns agreed to work with local developers and private property owners to find vacant apartments or suitable empty facilities that could house 100 families. GPCOG will also coordinate the creation of a program that will allow families to host asylum-seekers in their homes.”

Some cities outside the Greater Portland area, including Augusta, Bangor might also serve as future homes for the new arrivals from Africa. Rockland City Councilor and former Mayor Valli Geiger noted that housing is a major stumbling block for towns that otherwise might like to welcome the newcomers. She was pessimistic that Rockland would work as a location.

“We have not had this discussion [about whether to welcome some of the asylum seekers as residents] and are unlikely to, until we find a way to handle our severe housing shortage and housing affordability issue. We are at a 1.6 percent vacancy rate, which is essentially zero. My understanding is that 200-plus people are on the waiting list, just to get into the homeless shelter in Rockport,” Geiger said.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments held a meeting July 2 to talk about how communities might provide short-term housing for asylum seeking families. The meeting was attended by faith community leaders, housing providers, and immigrant leaders.

To make a donation to the city of Portland to help provide for the needs of these recent arrivals, text “EXPO” to 91999.

To make a donation to the Community Plus Fund, sponsored by the Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition, and dedicated to the new arrivals, visit

Kathreen Harrison is managing editor of Amjambo Africa Reprinted with edits for space from Vol. 2/No.4 Amjambo Africa.

Asylum seeks stand in line at the Porland Expo Center, which the city has set up as a temporary shelter. (Courtesy of: Laura deDoes)
Rows of cots line the Expo Center in Portland, where asylum-seekers are being housed temporarily. (Courtesy of: Laura deDoes)
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Comments (8)
Posted by: Valerie Wass | Jul 07, 2019 13:40

I would like to address what Councilor Geiger stated addressing Ms. Merriam.

"But the community thus far has resisted vigorously attempts to increase housing in the city of Rockland."

Councilor Geiger, I do not believe that the community has an input on any housing within the city limits.  Isn't that the job of the City government?  I have never recalled voting for housing.  I maybe wrong so this is why I am asking.

Posted by: Francis Mazzeo, Jr. | Jul 04, 2019 13:07

It is very difficult to live on most wages paid in this area. Most of the jobs in this area do not keep up with the cost of living. This country has turned into a society of greed. Things are not the same as when Ellis Island first came into being. People came here and expected to work hard and share in the fruits of their labor. Now we live in a society of educated idiots that think they need or are worth one hundred to a thousand times more than the seasoned employee. We, that grew up in the fifties and sixties , have seen the best of times. It all comes down to the mighty dollar, and that is really sad.

Posted by: Valli Genevieve Geiger | Jul 04, 2019 09:55

Ms. Merriam, I do not speak for the community. But the community thus far has resisted vigorously attempts to increase housing in the city of Rockland. This conversation can certainly take place in the community or as part of city council. But, I would find it unconscionable to bring families who have already suffered incredible trauma to a city where they can find a job but no place to live. We have many coming to Rockland looking to live here but unable to do so. Rents outstrip wages, houses that come on market that are affordable are often snapped up sight unseen by out of state investors. I find this very painful, as I believe the young people wanting to live and work here and those who want to raise families here are critical for Rockland's future. I worked with the Portland Community Health Center for several years and they served the refugee population from Somalia. Incredibly hard working people who would be an asset to any community.

I would welcome your participation and ideas in how to provide more housing in Rockland. Temporary housing alone will not solve this issue.

Valli Geiger, City Councilor

Posted by: Valerie Wass | Jul 03, 2019 21:26

{Applause} to Mr. Betts comment.  Very well stated, Ms. Merriam.

Posted by: Stephen Betts | Jul 03, 2019 16:59

Mr. Ingerson, people who oppose accepting immigrants have also opposed efforts to expand health care and social assistance that would have helped the homeless veterans you mentioned. And why do you refer to immigrants as "them?" They are people like you and I.

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jul 03, 2019 16:40

History repeating itself. Congrats to the town of Portland to help. Boston born and remember my parents talking about Ellis Island and bringing immigrants into the communities. They housed them on the Island until families sponsored them The families had to find housing and jobs before they left the island. .But now, thankfully, they have schools to help.

Posted by: Carleton Ingerson | Jul 03, 2019 15:36

Let Portland keep them...They wanted them, let them take care of them....In the meantime, let's help the thousands of homeless veterans who served THEIR country.

Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Jul 03, 2019 14:10

How does one city counselor speak for the entire townspeople of Rockland? With school out til late August, there are public spaces for temporary sheltering, as well as churches, which may wish to help. There may also be spaces available in nearby towns. Mid-coast people are kind and willing to help out if asked. City counselors are expected to be public servants and set compassionate examples. with ideas.

-Phyllis Merriam

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