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Asylum Seekers Leave Expo As Deadline To Vacate Hits

Patty Wight
Maine Public
Empty cots pile up, left, as asylum seekers leave the Expo for new homes - in some cases, the city's overflow shelter.

Officials in Portland say they will meet the Thursday deadline to vacate the Expo Center, which has served as a makeshift emergency shelter for the nearly 450 asylum seekers who have arrived in the city since the beginning of June.

Finding a mix of short and long term housing options has been a daunting task for several organizations, and some of the asylum seekers will move into the city's overflow shelter as the search for more stable placements continues.

As of Thursday morning, just 78 people remained at the Expo, and at least one-third of them were due to move out by the end of the day, including Lopema Junior Dimandja from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sitting in a truck about to whisk him, his wife and their three children to Brunswick, Dimandja says through an interpreter that they are happy to be moving into an apartment of their own.

"The first thing, he gonna relax, and take a deep breath, and the good thing again, it's like, he's still in the United States, so he's happy to be secure."

Inside the Expo, stacks of cots no longer in use line one side of the arena. Kids kick balls around the several dozen cots still open on the floor, holding suitcases, toys, and blankets that all need to be packed up by the end of the day.

City spokesperson Jessica Grondin says some of the remaining asylum seekers will likely have to move to Portland's overflow shelter, but more than 200 individuals have been placed in apartments in Portland and surrounding communities. A major feat, she says, given the housing shortage that persisted well before the asylum seekers arrived in June.

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
As of Thursday morning, just 78 people remained at the Expo, and at least one-third of them were due to move out by the end of the day

"I mean our shelter staff have been working and housing asylum seekers for years now, but just never all at once with this size of the number of people," Grondin says.

The sheer volume of need ignited efforts by other organizations to find temporary options for families. The Greater Portland Council of Governments spearheaded a search for host homes that has placed more than 40 families. Mufalo Chitam of the Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition worked diligently to interview and match families. Scanning the dwindling numbers at the Expo on Thursday, Chitam says she is proud of what the Maine community has done for these families.

"I mean you see the relief in their eyes that they know they're going to put their head on a pillow somewhere,” Chitam says. “It's emotional for us. It's emotional for me because I know what it means to come from away. And I know what it means to come to a state where you have to start from scratch. So I feel their anxiety, but I also rejoice in their new day that's starting today."

Marcel Selemani is also relieved that the Expo shelter is closing. As a city social worker, he has been logging long days there all summer long, arriving at 6:45 every morning and often staying till 9:30 at night.

"I feel exhausted,” he says. “I need some rest."

Selemani says he understands the concerns of the asylum seekers because he's in the process of seeking asylum himself. He came to the United States from Congo three years ago.

"I know, I'm like them. I slept at the shelter — Oxford Street. So, I'm really — I know what they are going through. I've been there."

Watching the families leave the Expo, Selemani says he feels a mix of excitement and concern.

Most of the new arrivals don't speak English, but those who have found a placement say they are ready to move on. A man from Angola named Marcel got word last week that he and his family of four were moving into an apartment. With Selemani as his interpreter, he says he appreciates the support he received at the Expo.

"So, it was good to stay. They know each other, and whatever their problem, they can talk to each other,” he says. “But now they have to move forward with their life. To get an apartment, kids have to go to school. So, it's good to move forward- move forward with their life."

Mufalo Chitam of the Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition says the move from the Expo merely closes a chapter, and that much of the work to support these families is just beginning as they seek asylum status and a new home.