Marie Paul Mulekwa, left, and her daughter Mimie Djibu Mobesha, in Portland on Nov. 24. Mobesha runs an African food market and plans to open a nonprofit shop to distribute clothing to immigrants who have followed her to Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, Mimie Mobesha, a Congolese immigrant, welcomed a group of Congolese asylum seekers into her former storefront on Forest Avenue for snacks and conversation about their journeys to Portland and their hopes for new lives here.   

Mobesha, who arrived in Portland in 2016 after spending time in Brazil, Washington, D.C. and Texas, is an unofficial axis for the Congolese community, connecting with new arrivals, helping them with immigration paperwork, and showing them how to get to important places like the hospital.

She also frequently hosts parties – of up to 50 people sometimes – where her new Congolese friends can come to forget their struggles and enjoy their native country’s food and music. 

Mobesha opened an African food market, Mimie’s Boutique, which recently moved to 25 Portland St. She wanted to start a business to provide for her parents, who followed her to Portland.

Her father, a veteran who served in the U.S. Army, works at the store with her. Her mother, Marie Paul Mulekwa, is a preacher who founded the God of Mercy Orphanage in Congo. She preaches online and sometimes in local churches. 

Mobesha is keeping the 981 Forest Ave. space and has plans to open a nonprofit clothing shop there, where she would give away clothes one day a week. Her effort could be particularly helpful to the almost 450 asylum seekers who arrived in Portland this summer, mostly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Portland Expo, home of the Maine Red Claws basketball team, was used as a makeshift shelter, as the city and nonprofits worked to find housing for new arrivals. Preble Street increased capacity of its soup kitchen by 50 percent to provide 600 extra meals daily at the Expo, with area businesses, farms, grocery stores, and community members pitching in. Residents opened their homes temporarily to the new arrivals through the host-home program.  

Since the Expo closed, the plight of these immigrants has largely fallen off the media’s radar, but the need for assistance continues with more refugees arriving. According to the city, 167 asylum-seekers, some of whom came from host homes, arrived at shelters between Aug. 15 and Nov. 20, and an additional 50 arrived last weekend. 

Sunday afternoon, a family of asylum-seekers who arrived in June and had stayed at the Portland Exposition Building, and a single mother of two who arrived 2018, reflected on their journeys and their experiences, which can provide a roadmap for these new arrivals as they navigate life in Portland. 

They asked that their last names or images not be used, and did not want to discuss their reasons for leaving their country because they fear it may affect their asylum applications. 

Ephraise’s story

Ephraise, who is 29 and came with her husband and children ages 7, 4 and 2, said she and her family left the Democratic Republic of Congo seven years ago, in 2012. They first stayed with friends in Angola and then made their way to Brazil. They stopped in many countries on their way to the southern border of the U.S., which they were able to cross in June.

They spent 48 hours in a detention center, sleeping on the floor next to a toilet. The family was not separated, but the men slept on a different side of the room than the women and children. Then they were transported to San Antonio, Texas, where they stayed for five days in a basketball stadium, sleeping on cots. Ephraise said an organization paid for bus tickets for a large group of asylum seekers and refugees. She decided to come to Portland because she heard there was a strong Congolese community here. 

After three days of travel and changing buses, Ephraise and her family arrived in Portland. They spent two months in the Expo before being placed with a host family, on the city’s north side. 

“They were a family of five and we were too, so there were 10 in the house,” she said, but added that it did not feel crowded. “We were well received.” 

Their host family helped them find housing through Avesta Housing on Munjoy Hill. 

Her husband, Platini, is taking English as a Second Language classes at the Salvation Army, and their children are attending East End Community School. 

She said her family enjoys Portland and intends to make it their home because people here have been very good to them. However, she has hopes for her family to become independent soon. 

“Right now we are depending on (General Assistance) for food and housing,” she said. “We need to work for ourselves to live like everyone else, like we are free. Now we are limited.” 

Her husband was a taxi driver in the DRC, but said he hopes to find a job sewing clothing. 

Mireille’s story 

Mireille and her two daughters, ages 9 and 12, left the DRC four years ago, following a similar path as Ephraise’s family; they stopped in Angola, Brazil, and crossed the southern border of the U.S. in the late summer of 2018. They stayed in a detention center for 22 days, and then stopped in San Antonio.

A lawyer helping with her asylum case paid for airfare to Portland, where she had some friends. She and her daughters spent four months in the family shelter.  

Now she has her own apartment and is taking ESL classes at the Salvation Army. Like Platini, Mireille said she, too, hopes to find sewing work. 

Her children, who go to King Middle School and East End School, said they enjoy the schools and have people who they can talk to in Portuguese while they are learning English. 

The conversation then drifted to things they miss about their home country: the food, the weather. Ephraise said transportation is difficult here; they often have to wait at bus stops for up to 30 minutes, and on Sundays the buses stop at 6 p.m. 

In the DRC, Mobesha said, taxis and motorcycles go by all the time. “There’s a ton of transportation there; it’s easy there.”

She said that while the night clubs here close at 1 a.m., there they are open all night. 

“We miss that a lot,” she said. “And then the Christmas is too short here, and New Year.” 

But despite the things they miss, they all agreed they feel welcome, safe and secure in Portland, and intend to make it their permanent home. 

For asylum-seekers who had not found housing by the time they were forced to leave the Expo,  host families picked up some slack. But they couldn’t solve every problem.

‘Spur-of-the-moment decision’

Chris Dana said hosting asylum seekers in his family’s Deering Highlands home in early August was a “spur-of-the-moment decision.” 

There was a desperate need for families to host, because the Expo was closing and there were still families there, and he had enough room in his three-bedroom home. He filled out an online application for the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition and the next morning he received a call. 

The fact that he spoke Portuguese and that his family didn’t have a dog – most of the asylum seekers were not used to living with dogs, he said – put them at the top of the list. 

A married couple and their 18-month-old child joined Dana and his wife and two children, and lived with them for 87 days. Dana said the couple was extremely polite and smart, and that overall the experience was positive, especially for his 4- and 7-year-old children. 

“They didn’t bat an eye,” he said, “They loved the 18-month-old. They thought it was fun. I think they learned a bit about the rest of the world and how fortunate we are.”  

But day to day, accommodating their guests became somewhat difficult for Dana and his wife. Adding three other people they did not know made their home feel crowded and upset their routines, and the differences in culture and parenting styles created challenges. 

“Nothing was a disaster or major issue,” Dana said. “It was just sort of constantly difficult, and that built up over time.” 

He said his friends who also hosted a family said that they had difficulty getting used to the smell of goat, which the guests cooked frequently. 

Dana said he was led to believe the host’s only responsibility would be providing a roof, and the asylum-seekers would have case management and support finding housing. But that turned out not to be the case. And he said it was a “nightmare” for the family to go to their General Assistance appointments and wait all day in line, only to be turned away and have to go back the next day and wait again. 

“The city wasn’t really prepared for this,” he said. “They didn’t marshall up other resources or assistance once the Expo was closed. We ended up looking for apartments with them, but we didn’t have time or experience. We were ultimately unsuccessful.” 

The family ended up at the Family Shelter after their three-month stay in Dana’s home. 

City response

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said last week that the host home program was meant to be temporary, lasting two to three months, after which the city expected the families to go to the Family Shelter to connect with case workers who would help them find housing. 

She hadn’t heard from staff about excessively long lines at the GA office, but said “I’m sure that it was more crowded than normal given the volume and given the resources that we have.

“We did add extra housing counsellors and financial eligibility specialists with donated money in order to provide more assistance in finding housing opportunities and getting people eligible for benefits,” Grondin said.

Dana said MaineHealth and Maine Medical Center have been great in their response to the medical needs of the family he was hosting. He was also impressed with how helpful cashiers at Hannaford on Forest Avenue were in navigating the different forms of public assistance the family was using for payment. 

And he said the Portland Public Schools were well prepared for the influx of asylum seekers. 

His daughter goes to Longfellow school, which has received many of these newcomers. “My daughter was excited to have these kids in her class,” he said. 

Longfellow School Principal Terry Young said Monday that the school administration learned early enough in the summer that it would be receiving 25-30 asylum-seeking children, so it had time to prepare and get everything in place for the first day of school. The administration and parents began collecting donations of winter clothing, and L.L. Bean provided backpacks and water bottles. 

The school tried to place the new children in classes in groups of two or three so they would have a sense of comfort with peers who spoke their language. They also have a partnership with Deering High School, where high school students whose native languages are Portuguese, Spanish or French visit Longfellow during their free periods to mentor students who speak those languages. 

He said the social adjustment of these new students has been very positive. 

“Children in elementary school are very welcoming,” Young said. “Being new is a great thing to be, and the fact that they’re new and from another country and speak a different language have really motivated the children to want to welcome them.” 

He said he enjoys seeing the children who don’t speak the same language playing together, getting to know each other and enjoying each other’s company. It gives them a reason to want to learn other languages, so that they can communicate with people across the globe and in their own school. And he said the new children are picking up English quickly.

“My personal learning is just how amazing these people are and what they’ve been through to get here, how committed they are to education and how appreciative and respectful they are of teachers and administrators,” Young said. “I have been blown away by the parents’ commitment to giving their kids a better life. The stories are amazing and inspiring and the kids are just awesome.” 

Editor’s note (Nov. 27): This story has been corrected from an earlier version which misstated the month in which Ephraise’s family arrived in Portland.