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Mass shootings rattle immigrant families in Maine, who came to the US seeking safety and stability

A woman wearing a black shirt and red pants stands outside next to her son, wearing a tan shirt.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
Neusa Lopes, left, with her son Carlos. Lopes says it feels like the gun violence problem in the U.S. is getting out of control.

Sitting on the couch at his family’s apartment in Lewiston, 12-year-old Carlos Silva said, in general, he looks forward to going to school.

"Yeah I love school," he said with a smile. "I love the education, and the people there."

Silva is originally from Angola — he moved to Lewiston in 2018 with his mother and two siblings.

But Silva said the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas last month has cast a shadow over his feelings about being in school.

"I have to like, look around, like, 'Oh, I hope there's not like a shooter like, outside or something,'" Silva said. "It just makes me like very cautious and scared."

Silva’s mother, Neusa Lopes, said she brought her children to the U.S. so that they would have better educational opportunities.

Now, though, Lopes said it's frightening to send her kids to school.

"We need to like to pray every day. To God take care of them. Because the situation is getting out of control," she said.

Already this year, the U.S. has experienced more than 245 mass shootings, defined as incidents in which four or more people are shot. It also has by far the highest number of civilian-owned firearms in the world.

And, in 2020, firearm related injuries surpassed car accidents to become the leading cause of death for children and adolescents.

For some immigrant parents in Maine, both the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. and the pervasiveness of guns are a frightening combination.

"So I’m scared for my kids, I’m so scared for myself," said Bernadette Tshiyombo, a single mother from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who lives in Portland.

Tshiyombo has three sons, including three-year-old twins Wilson and William, who, on a recent evening, were bouncing around the living room in matching onesie pajamas, showing off some of their favorite toy cars.

A woman sits on a couch with her three young sons.
Ari Snider
Bernadette Tshiyombo at home with her three sons: seven year-old Yanis, and three-year old twins Wilson and William. Tshiyombo says she immigrated to the US because it seemed like a more stable place to raise children, but that the frequency of mass shootings in this country makes her concerned for her and her children's safety.

Tshiyombo said she was happy with her life in the Congo, but moved to the U.S. in 2015 with her now ex-husband, who convinced her that the U.S. would be a more stable place to raise children.

But Tshiyombo said that sense of stability is complicated by the frequency and seeming randomness of mass shootings in the U.S. — and carries an extra fear for her as a single mother.

"If something happen in the clinic, or in the shopping...who [is] going to take care of my kids?" she asked.

Asked if the fear of gun violence makes her rethink her decision to raise a family here, Tshiyombo paused, and offered a saying in French: There are no roses without thorns.

It's just a matter, she said, of avoiding the dangerous thorns of this country as best you can.

While Tshiyombo navigates the challenges of raising her children in the U.S., the recent string of mass shootings has one Angolan father named Antonio wondering if he should bring his family here in the first place.

"How can I bring my kids here and sending them to school where I can receive a notice like it was some shooting to your kids’ school?" he said.

Antonio arrived in Maine several years ago as an asylum seeker — his wife and four children are still in Angola. We’re not using his full name because his asylum claim remains pending.

In Angola, Antonio said he feared for his safety due to his political activism. Now, after the supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York last month, he said he fears for his safety at the grocery store.

Antonio said he’d feel more confident about bringing his family to the U.S. if the government would take steps to reduce gun violence.

"They need to protect the people. From there, I can believe, to say, 'Yes, I can bring my family. They can stay safe,'" he said.

Mass shootings are especially unnerving for people like Floreka Malual, who’s family escaped war in South Sudan in the early 2000s, when she was seven years old.

"We came here to, you know, feel safe, but we're not safe," Malual said.

A woman wearing a pink sweater and jeans stands in front of a garden bed and a tree.
Ari Snider
Floreka Malual came to the US when she she was seven years old, after her family escaped the war in South Sudan. She says the frequency of mass shootings in the US is unsettling for refugee communities like hers that came to this country seeking safety.

Malual said in South Sudan, there was a feeling that the government wasn’t able to protect its citizens, and that violence could erupt at any time.

Here in the U.S., she said the lack of government action to address gun violence echoes that sense of a country unable to provide safety to its people — and strikes at the heart of her community’s vision of what American should be.

"When we come here, this is the land of opportunity. This is the land of you could be anybody you want to be if you work hard," she said. "And for senseless shootings to happen like this, there's no, there is no system, there is no control."

Malual has a two-and-a-half-year-old son, and said she’s already anxious about the day she’ll drop him off at school for the first time.