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In Portland, immigrant groups and city staff struggle to support record number of asylum seekers

A teenage girl wearing a pink sweatshirt and headphones packs plastic containers of food.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
Merdie, a 16 year-old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, helps with the Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition's meal distribution program at the Howard Johnson hotel in South Portland, where she has lived with her family for over a month. Merdie and her family are among more than 700 asylum seekers living in emergency housing in southern Maine.

In a spare room at the Howard Johnson motel in South Portland on a recent evening, three teenage girls were packing dozens of to-go containers with hot dinner for asylum seekers living here.

One of the girls, Merdie, a sixteen-year-old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been living at this hotel with her family for over a month. Speaking in Portuguese, Merdie said she and her friends help out with the distribution most nights, and they try to have fun while doing it.

"It's fun," she said. "Sometimes we put on music, sometimes we start laughing. We work in a fun way."

But while Merdie and her friends try to keep a lighthearted atmosphere, they are part of a very serious emergency aid response.

"I would say we’re in a crisis situation," said Kristen Dow, health and human services director for the city of Portland. Dow said Portland’s family shelter filled up nearly two years ago, and the city is now housing asylum seekers at ten motels, from Old Orchard Beach to Freeport - but she said even that may not be enough.

"I fear for what happens when this newest hotel that opened in Freeport fills up," Dow said. "Where’s the next hotel?"

Now that asylum seekers are living in motels beyond Portland, Dow said she’d like to see the state step in and help coordinate assistance between municipalities.

"So that families can get the care and services that they need in those individual communities would be a tremendous help," she said.

A man wearing a flannel shirt and a woman wearing black overalls pack plastic trays of food.
Ari Snider
Solomon Nkhalamba, left, and Rebecca Mwila pack plastic containers with beans, pork, and fufu on a recent night at the Howard Johnson hotel in South Portland. Nkhalamba and Mwila are volunteers working with the Maine Immigrants Rights' Coalition's meal distribution program, which serves around 250 individuals six nights a week.

For now, the day-to-day work of resettling hundreds of families is falling on city staff and a network of immigrant-led organizations rushing to fill the gap.

One of those organizations is the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which runs the food distribution program, providing hot dinner six nights a week to 250 people. Executive director Mufalo Chitam said it feels like running a multinational corporation.

"Supply chain and the distribution channels, and then a whole transportation system that has to pick up the food," Chitam said, describing the logistics of the food delivery operation.

But the coalition is actually a relatively small organization that's more accustomed to doing advocacy work, as opposed to distributing food.

All this help is needed, Chitam said, because these families have to wait at least a full year before they can apply for a work permit as their asylum cases are pending in a backlogged immigration court system.

"Folks come here not because they want to sit back, they come here because they want to work," she said. "They can't work, then they can't be able to support their families."

Two men stand in front of a table of food at a hotel.
Ari Snider
Papy Bongibo, left, is the president of the Congolese Community of Maine, and Luc Matumona, right, is one of the community association's volunteers. Both said it was important to them to help the new arrivals - many of whom are also from the Congo - but stressed that it is not easy to maintain a sprawling resettlement operation on volunteer labor.

In the meantime, several immigrant community groups have stepped in to help keep the families afloat.

"We don’t have enough financial support to run this operation, but we’re still doing it," said Papy Bongibo, president of the Congolese Community of Maine, one of the organizations helping with everything from translating medical bills to driving people to legal appointments. Bongibo said he and his team of half a dozen volunteers feel a duty to support the new arrivals, but he questions how long they can keep up this round-the-clock effort.

"I told you about those volunteers, they have lives, they have families. We cannot keep them forever here. It’s hard," he said.

Even as aid groups are stretched thin, Bongibo said word has spread that support is available in Maine, and that has made the state a popular destination for families seeking a safe place to restart their lives, many of whom are from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

And when families arrive at the Howard Johnson hotel, Emilia Franco is one of the first people they turn to for help.

"My phone starts ringing at 8am," Franco said. "[At] midnight, people are still calling."

A woman wearing a blue facemask and a black and white striped sweater leans on a railing at a hotel.
Ari Snider
Emilia Franco, vice president of the Angolan Community of Maine, at the Howard Johnson hotel in South Portland recently. Franco has set up a makeshift office at the hotel, where she provides case management services to the families living there.

Franco is the vice president of the Angolan Community of Maine, and has set up a makeshift office at the hotel where she offers case management services five days a week. She said her primary focus is helping families navigate new systems, like public school, public transportation, and immigration court.

But as one of only a few on-site service provides, Franco said she sometimes gets requests that fall well outside the typical purview of a case manager.

"Today, I have someone who came here and asked me to help with homework," she said. "I was like, this is not, you know, my job. But I had to explain to her how to do homework."

Like others on the ground, Franco said the workload can be overwhelming. Still, she said, so long as families are seeking better lives in Maine, she sees it as an obligation to help them.

"But my question is what we can do as a society, what we can do as a community, what we can do as a government, what we can do to make things better?" she said.

The outside of a hotel at night with a neon sign that reads Howard Johnson on the wall.
Ari Snider
Dozens of asylum-seeking families are staying at the Howard Johnson hotel in South Portland. The hotel is one of ten that the city of Portland is using as emergency housing.

By now, it’s around 10pm, and Merdie and her friends are handing out the last to-go containers of beans, stewed pork, and fufu, a cassava dough popular in many parts of Africa.

Between pulling long shifts with the meal distribution and starting high school in a new country, Merdie is dealing with a lot. But she said she’s happy, because getting to the US was what she and her family wanted most of all.

"We achieved our goal by the grace of God," she said. "Because getting here was not easy."