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Asylum Seekers Welcomed At Independence Day Picnic In Cape Elizabeth

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Caitlin Troutman
/
Maine Public
Asylum Seekers Welcomed At Independence Day Picnic In Cape Elizabeth

An Independence Day picnic Thursday in Cape Elizabeth’s Fort Williams Park, home of the iconic Portland Head Light, welcomed dozens of newly-arrived asylum seekers staying at the Portland Expo Center.

Organizer Amy Regan Gallant says the idea quickly grew into a community effort.

“I was at home and thinking, I want to do something meaningful for our new neighbors, the asylum seekers,” says Regan Gallant. “I'm one of the 1,200 people who applied to volunteer, I have donated a little bit, but I just felt like there was an opportunity to do more. So I threw it on Facebook. And I said, if I organized a picnic, would anybody be interested?”

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Credit Caitlin Troutman / Maine Public
Someone donated several soccer balls, and volunteers and asylum seekers alike were playing pick-up games together throughout the afternoon.

Over the course of a week, Regan Gallant says more than 200 people offered help through Facebook. She says community members donated food, Custom Coach and Limousine service offered a reduced rate to provide asylum seekers transportation from the expo center to the park, and volunteers raised more than $2,000 to cover the rest of the costs.

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Credit Caitlin Troutman / Maine Public
Volunteers made signs that said "Welcome" in different languages

Volunteers made signs saying "Welcome" in different languages, which they held as buses arrived. The event itself had a generous spread of fresh fruit, ice cream, chips and more. There were also coloring pages and bubble wands for children and a face painting station. Someone donated several soccer balls, and volunteers and asylum seekers alike were playing pick-up games together throughout the afternoon.

“My initial expectation, honestly, was me, (my friend) Ashley, my mom and maybe like a dozen kiddos who wanted to not be in the expo today,” Regan Gallant says. “And I'm just so moved by the generosity and the hospitality and the goodness that I'm seeing in people.”

Dorcas Thete, a coordinator who works with asylum seekers in Portland, says the asylum seekers were surprised and pleased by the number of people who came to the event.

“They are actually so surprised,” she says. “Honestly, I think it's the welcoming of it all. I think they were surprised, they didn't expect so many people to be here, and to welcome them and to play around with them and all of that.”

Through a translator, asylum seeker Annete Kalombo, who says she fled from the Congo, was at first hesitant to come to the 4th of July event, but is glad she did.

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Credit Caitlin Troutman / Maine Public
Asylum seeker Annete Kalombo with her daughter. She was hesitant to come to the event, but was glad she did.

“When she came, the way they welcomed them, the food, the people, the joy, she’s very happy, and she’s saying, thank you, thank you, thank you, on behalf of everybody,” she said through a translator.

Not everyone in the community has been supportive of the event or of asylum seekers’ presence in Portland. Regan Gallant said she received negative social media comments and messages while planning the event.

“Yeah, I've heard and read some criticism about ‘why do something like this for the so-called newcomers, and not for the homeless or not for veterans,’” she says. “I think it's really important that we acknowledge that there is enough generosity to go around in Maine...there's not a finite amount of good that Mainers can do in this world.”

Thete says she also appreciates the number of people who want to help, and hopes the community will remember why the cause is important.

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Credit Caitlin Troutman / Maine Public
There were coloring pages and bubble wands for children and a face painting station.

“I'm really happy that there are people here, you know, welcoming the asylum seekers, but I also I don't want it to be, like, they're just something to gaze over,” she says. “Just remembering that when you come to volunteer, when you read about it, these are human beings who needed a safe space because their space was violated.”

More than 220 Asylum-seekers have arrived in Portland since mid-June. Thete says that the city is still seeking public donations of various kinds as they work to find homes for asylum seekers.

Originally published 5:57 p.m. July 4, 2019.