About 140 asylum seekers slept on cots in the Portland Expo building Wednesday night — the first night that the building was opened to the hundreds of new arrivals from the southern U.S. border over the past few days. More are expected soon.
By Thursday afternoon, the Portland Expo building had been transformed from a sports arena into a makeshift shelter. Hundreds of cots lined the floor, next to rows of tables and chairs. Volunteers offered food and health supplies. Some translated and created arts and crafts projects with the young children who were running across the hardwood floors.
City officials say that about 140 people stayed in the Expo Wednesday night, most having come to Maine by bus from Texas. The influx began a few days ago, following a change in U.S. border policy, city officials say, sending asylum seekers directly to cities like Portland without beginning the application process, making them ineligible to receive General Assistance.
The increase has overwhelmed city services and, on Wednesday, officials said they expect more buses to arrive by the end of the day.
Inside the Expo Center, two of those asylum seekers, named Filipe and Mireille, sit with their four young children close to a makeshift bed made from several cots pushed together. Towels and bags are stacked on top. The family arrived in Portland, Mireille says, after a nearly five month journey from their home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Through a translator, she says the family was forced to flee violence from civil war in their home country. They flew to Ecuador, then walked through many countries to reach the United States.
“We spent five days with no food for the children at all,” Mireille says through a translator. “All the food we had for the children was finished."
But Filipe says they pushed themselves to keep going, drinking bits of juice to maintain their energy. They would carry the children on their backs, he says, traverse rivers, and walk along teetering paths on the mountains of Panama.
“I can't advise anyone to come. I just thank the eternal God for the grace to get me here,” he says.
When they finally reached the southern border of the United States, Filipe says they waited more than two months to enter. After the months of walking, the waiting and a three-day bus ride from San Antonio, they finally arrived in Portland Tuesday. And despite sleeping on a cot in an emergency shelter, Filipe describes his new situation as a "paradise." He hopes to work as a driver, like he did in his home country.
"I was thinking, what could I do, what could I wish for? And this is what I wish for,” he says. “I really thank you so much."
In recent days, many of Maine's immigrant advocacy groups have worked together with the city to offer volunteers and supplies to the hundreds of asylum seekers. Mufalo Chitam, the executive director of the Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition, says her group and others have talked with the new arrivals to assess their needs, and they have been organizing the many people across the city who have offered to volunteer and assist.
“We're just asking for funds because the next 48 hours are unknown as we try to create the list of needs,” Chitam says.
City officials have also opened a donation text line, which they say has brought in $63,000 from about 700 donors. Friday afternoon, Gov. Janet Mills is set to meet with Portland city leaders to discuss a more comprehensive response to the situation.