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

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

One of the girls, Merdie, a sixteen-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been living in this hotel with her family for more than a month. Speaking in Portuguese, Merdie said she and her friends help out with the cast almost every night and try to have fun while doing it.

“It’s fun,” she said. “Sometimes we put on some music, sometimes we start laughing. We work in a fun way.”

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

“I would say we are in a crisis situation,” said Kristen Dow, director of health and human services 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 in ten motels, from Old Orchard Beach to Freeport – but she said even that might not be enough.

“I fear for what happens when this new hotel that opened in Freeport fills up,” Dow said. “Where is the next hotel?” »

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

“In order for families to get the care and services they need in those individual communities, that would be a huge help,” she said.

Solomon Nkhalamba, left, and Rebecca Mwila pack plastic containers with beans, pork and fufu during 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 program, which serves approximately 250 people six nights a week.

For now, the daily work of resettling hundreds of families falls to city staff and a network of immigrant-led organizations rushing to fill the void.

One such organization is the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which runs the food distribution program, providing a hot dinner six nights a week to 250 people. Executive Director Mufalo Chitam said he felt like he was running a multinational.

“The supply chain and 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 is more used to advocacy than food distribution.

All of this help is needed, Chitam said, because these families must wait at least a year before they can apply for work permits, as their asylum claims are pending in a backlogged immigration court system.

“People don’t come here because they want to sit, they come here because they want to work,” she said. “They can’t work, so they can’t support their families.”

Two men stand in front of a food table in a hotel.

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 new arrivals – many of whom are also from Congo – but stressed that maintaining a sprawling resettlement operation on voluntary work is not easy.

Meanwhile, several immigrant community groups have stepped in to help keep families afloat.

“We don’t have enough financial support to carry out this operation, but we still do it,” said Papy Bongibo, president of the Congolese Community of Maine, one of the organizations that helps with everything from translating bills medical conditions to the conduct of legally appointed persons. Bongibo said he and his team of half a dozen volunteers feel a duty to support new arrivals, but he wonders how long they will be able to sustain this round-the-clock effort.

“I told you about these volunteers, they have lives, they have families. We can’t keep them here forever. It’s hard,” he said.

Even as aid groups are stretched, Bongibo said word has spread that support is available in Maine, and it’s made the state a popular destination for families looking for help. a safe place to start their lives over, many of whom come from Angola and the Democratic Republic. of 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 8 a.m.,” Franco said. “[At] midnight, people are still calling.”

A woman wearing a blue mask and a black and white striped sweater leans on a railing in a hotel.

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 main goal is to help families navigate new systems, like public school, public transportation and immigration court.

But as one of the few service providers on site, Franco said she sometimes receives requests that fall well outside the typical scope of a case manager.

“Today I have someone who came here and asked me to help with homework,” she said. “I was like, this isn’t, you know, my job. But I had to explain to him how to do his homework.”

Like others in the field, Franco said the workload can be overwhelming. Still, she says, as long as families seek a better life in Maine, she considers it an obligation to help them.

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

The exterior of a hotel at night with a neon sign that reads Howard Johnson on the wall.

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 uses as emergency housing.

It is now around 10 p.m., and Merdie and her friends are handing out the last takeout containers of beans, pork stew and fufu, a cassava paste popular in many parts of Africa.

Between working long shifts delivering meals and starting high school in a new country, Merdie faces a lot. But she said she was happy because going to the United States was what she and her family wanted the most.

“We achieved our goal by the grace of God,” she said. “Because coming here was not easy.”