As Asylum Seekers Relocate Outside Portland, Communities Look To Add Cultural Supports

Jul 23, 2019

It has been more than a month since the city of Portland opened its Expo building as an emergency shelter to house the hundreds of migrants, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, who’ve arrived from the southern U.S. border with Mexico.

With a deadline approaching to clear out of the Expo, officials are scrambling to find housing options, even 30 miles or more away from Portland — a distance from other immigrants and from critical resources that can create even more complications for some newcomers.

When Maurice Namwira arrived in Maine about seven years ago, he left nearly everything behind, including his wife and children, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Namwira looked to the existing immigrant communities around him in Portland for support.

“You become automatically friends because of the language. And those who speak Portuguese who come from Angola. And Lingala, mostly from Congo. So the life is an interesting life where people seem to know each and everyone,” he says.

In the years since, Namwira has taken classes and now works as a medical interpreter for a hospital. Then, last fall, after years apart, his wife and children finally joined him in Maine.

“So it was for me a happy surprise to have them. And I got supported by people here in Maine to find a house where all could fit in,” he says.

It’s a large family. There’s Namwira, his wife and seven children. So, instead of looking only in Portland or surrounding communities, he worked with a few organizations in the midcoast and found a big, five-bedroom house in Bath, 35 miles up the coast.

“Bath is a small community. And as small it is, we come together. So it gave me an opportunity to meet new people and have to know more new people,” he says.

Namwira’s decision to leave Portland for Bath is one that relatively few immigrant families have chosen to make in recent years. Yet, in the coming weeks, many families staying at the Portland Expo may have to accept similar arrangements as city, state and regional officials look away from the immediate Portland area for housing.

“We have been desperately trying to identify units of housing,” Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said last week. “We do not anticipate finding 150 units of housing in one geographic region.”

Due to contractual obligations, the city faces an Aug. 15 deadline to relocate more than 250 asylum seekers now staying in the Expo building. The city has space for about 110 people at its overflow shelter, but that still leaves about 150 more in need of a place to go.

Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, says it’s a difficult puzzle to solve given the already stretched rental market.

“We had about 10 town managers call property owners in their town, and we turned up one vacancy. So that just underscores what a housing crunch we already have in this region,” she says.

Chris Rhoades, a developer who offered two units to house asylum seekers, at a city council meeting in Brunswick last week.
Credit Eliana Miller / Maine Public

Right now, officials are working two options. One is to look beyond Portland, to communities such as Bath, Brunswick, Lewiston and even Ellsworth. Two weeks ago, about 20 asylum seekers moved into two vacant units donated by a developer in Brunswick, rent free for at least three months.

The second option, Egan says, is called a “host home” program, in which asylees are being matched with families in surrounding towns, who can open space in their homes for at least a few months.

“If they can do more, better, to get us through mid-October. Through mid-October, seasonal housing opens up in southern Maine, and units open up on the market. So we’re thinking that can be a Plan B, to find the homes that asylees can live in for a longer period of time,” she says.

Egan says the organization has already received inquiries from more than 100 families, with a goal to place up to 40 of them.

But with these relocations there are new challenges. Claude Rwaganje, executive director of ProsperityME, which provides financial literacy to immigrants, says one concern is ensuring that as families move over the next few months, they stay on top of their address changes to make sure that immigration and court documents don’t get lost and jeopardize their asylum cases.

“We have to figure out ways. It’s all positive, that, really, people find a private place where they can have rest with their families. But it doesn’t come without any challenge,” he says.

The challenge is more cultural. Because of Portland’s immigrant population, many of the city’s immigrant and community groups have been able to quickly provide services, language supports and cultural brokering to support asylum seekers. But Portland City Councilor Pious Ali says other towns that have never hosted these populations will have to work hard to ensure that new families feel trusted and supported.

“They’ve never hosted anybody who is not white, and who is not from this country. So it is the need for the work to figure out, how do we support them? Whether it is the host communities, or these the immigrants that are we are moving into those communities,” he says.

In Brunswick, where some asylum-seeking families have already arrived, a number of organizations have been pushing the town to hire someone to assist the new arrivals and work as a cultural broker. Mufalo Chitam, the executive director of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, says her organization and other advocacy groups will help with that process across Maine in the months ahead.

“So we’re in there now, basically using Portland as a blueprint to make sure services are provided for immigrants and asylum seekers,” she says.

For Namwira and his family, the transition to living in Bath hasn’t been completely smooth. His daughter says that the sense of cultural isolation was hard for the first year, particularly with so few immigrants in their new city. But, the family says they’ve received help from several community groups, and have mentors and tutors to guide them. Namwira says he’d be happy to help the new arrivals to Maine in just the same way.