'It’s Just New People To Bond With' — Maine Host Families And Asylum Seekers Adjust To Life Together

Oct 5, 2019

It has been six weeks since hundreds of asylum seekers — mostly from African countries — had to vacate the Portland Expo, and the housing search for these nearly 450 people continues.

About three-quarters have moved into permanent housing, but dozens more families wait — either in the city's shelter or in the private homes of local hosts.

When you get a new roommate — whether you know them or not — you can typically expect to be able to talk with them about how to navigate your new living situation. But when Alex Abbott, Jenny Melville and their daughter Grace opened their Freeport home to new roommates, they got five of them. And they all primarily speak Lingala, a language used in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"It’s probably one of the hardest things, is the difficulty of communication," says Alex Abbott. His wife, Jenny Melville, says the two families have found a sort of common language.

"Well, we both speak some pretty bad French, and then there’s Google translate,” Melville says. “So between our bad French, and Valentin and Juliana – they speak good French. So we can communicate. It's not a nuanced communication, but we can get the basics."

Valentin and Juliana, who don't want to share their last name because of their asylum case, arrived at Abbott and Melville's door on a Sunday afternoon about one month ago with their three children, ages two, four and ten. It was yet another stop in their months-long journey from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the United States.

Valentin, speaking through translator Luc Kuanzambi, says they were nervous about moving into a home with strangers.

"Just as you know, when you’re meeting someone for the first time that you're not familiar with, you feel a little uncomfortable,” Valentin says. “But it took us a few days to feel very comfortable, because we find that they're very good people, very caring people."

As a host home, the primary obligation for Abbott and Melville is to provide a temporary place to stay that allows the family to be independent. That means, in part, giving space for Valentin and Juliana to store their own food and cook their own meals.

"Ok so we’re coming into the kitchen, and you can see this is where we share – so we emptied out this cabinet for them, so they have all their food here so they don’t have to worry about, 'Is this ours, is this yours?'" Melville explains.

In the kitchen, each family also has their own designated fruit and veggie bowl. Just off the playroom, the family of five is split between a guest room and a bedroom that used to be occupied by Melville and Abbott's adult son.

Their 17-year-old daughter Grace is still at home. She says she wasn't sure at first about becoming a host family, because their lives were already so busy. But now, she makes a point to spend time with their new roommates. Especially the kids.

"It’s really easy to bond with them without language,” she says. “And my friends love it. Like we come here and eat lunch here like every day, in the middle of the school day, and usually Ariella is here, sometimes Blessing is here, and we’ll usually draw or play outside.”

Melville agrees.

"One of my favorite memories is one night Grace had a whole bunch of friends over,” says Melville. “And we were sitting with John, who's 10, doing a puzzle. And all these guys, all these like, 17, 18, 19 year-old guys came in and they were hanging out with him, and this was before he spoke any English – his language is, after just four weeks in school, so much better. And they were just having the best time, doing this puzzle with, hanging out with him, relating to him, and they had no language in common."

The two families have formed a connection, though the details of why Valentin and Juliana left the Democratic Republic of the Congo are unclear. Valentin declined to talk about it during our interview. Regardless of what led them to Maine, Grace says it's just nice to experience people from a different culture on a daily basis.

"In Freeport, where I live, it’s a pretty sheltered place and we don’t have a ton of exposure to different ways of life, different people at all, really,” she says. “There's not a ton of diversity in any context, so it's cool. And it’s just new people to bond with."

Valentin says even in a short period of time, his family has learned many things about American culture from the Abbott-Melville family.

“Things that stood out to me with the American culture is the fact that, first of all, they’re very strict about the time,” Valentin says through a translator. “They tend to keep the time, that’s something we naturally never do. And second, honesty. They really want us to be honest. Besides, they don’t keep a grudge."

As hosts, Melville says her family has tried not to interfere with their guests’ lives, but they have helped with things like registering the kids for school, or connecting the family to English lessons. She says she asked Valentin and Juliana early on whether that was okay. Valentin says he almost can't believe how helpful the family has been.

“We were puzzled by their welcome,” he says. “Because even people from our country, our kinsman, will never welcome us the way they did. How can you live under the same roof with people you don’t know, people you're not familiar with? We feel like what they've done is a lifetime lesson for us, that we should never discriminate people, no matter how they look. They’re still human beings, we are grateful for this family, and wherever we go, we will not forget them.”

On Saturday, the family is moving into their own place in Portland. But Valentin says they'll be back to visit. Because in the United States, he says, Alex, Jenny and Grace are the closest thing to family they have.

Originally published 4:07 p.m. Oct. 4, 2019