The Greater Portland area is changing in many ways. One of the more obvious is its demographics.
Over the past five years, the city’s seen an influx of immigrants, coming primarily from places like Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Congo. Catholic Charities — which provides Maine’s only refugee resettlement program — has assisted 642 primary refugees, 34 secondary migrants, and 85 asylees into new homes in Portland in 2016, and the numbers of arrivals are expected to be similar this year. Many of these immigrants come to Maine hoping to carve a new life for themselves, void of economic stagnation, famine, war, political persecution, or other forms of oppression.
But when immigrants arrive stateside, they’re often met with a different set of unique, life-altering challenges.
A new organization aims to ameliorate some of those challenges. It’s called the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, and it held a ribbon-cutting ceremony last Monday at its new facility with Senator Angus King, Attorney General Janet Mills, City Manager Jon Jennings, City Councilor Pious Ali, and dozens of other business and community leaders in attendance. The center is poised to be a one-stop-shop for any immigrant — regardless of status — to visit and access a wide variety of resources designed to ease some of the burdens associated with the transition to American society.
From left to right: Tarlan Ahmadov, director of refugee services at Catholic Charities, Janet Mills, Maine's Attorney General, and Senator Angus King.
The center, located on the third floor of 24 Preble Street, is a new, sleek-looking modern facility decorated with art from local artists. It’s equipped with the tools and a staff capable of addressing a New Mainer’s initial goals, which, according to the folks working there, tend to be learning English, launching a business, applying for citizenship, finding a job, and/or securing housing.
The ethos behind the Immigrant Welcome Center is to connect and collaborate with those organizations already working on immigration and integration issues — places like the New Mainer’s Tenant Association, the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, and the New England Arab American Association, to name a few. The center’s mission is a synergistic work environment, complete with co-working space and meeting rooms where reps from different companies can build work off of each other and share resources, information, and assets. The IWC wants to go beyond immigration organizations working in silos.
That mission is what excites Micky Bondo, a Congolese immigrant, about bringing her work to the center. She’s the co-founder of In Her Presence, an organization led by immigrant women, that seeks to bring them “out of the shadows and on the stage.” Bondo works with women from 11 different nations and offers them classes on the English language, and health and wellness topics.
Micky Bondo, the assistant executive director of In Her Presence.
“We find out that immigrant women are often so lost and isolated, so we created a platform for them,” said Bondo. “We want their dreams to stay alive.”
We spoke with the interim Executive Director of the Immigrant Welcome Center Alain Nahimana, who sought asylum from political persecution in Burundi seven years ago, and has lived and worked on immigration issues here in Maine ever since. He offered us the following insight into why Portland needs such a center, and what other hurdles immigrants have to go through in order to thrive and succeed in a new country.
The interview has been slightly edited for grammar and clarity.
One of the brains behind the Immigrant Welcome Center, Alain Nahimana.
What’s the overall mission of the Immigrant Welcome Center and why does Portland need one?
This idea came from a conversation between me and Damas Rugaba an immigrant from Rwanda. We talked about our desire to empower groups working on immigration issues and have them focus more on their programs instead of logistics. We need to focus more on opportunity.
We also asked ourselves, how do we change the narrative around immigration and tell our story and our aspirations? How do we change the narrative from what we’re hearing in the mainstream media?
What services are you going to offer?
The programming is built on three main pillars. The first is the English Language Learning Lab, which is incorporating technology into the class. It allows people to learn English very quickly, which they need to get into jobs or to do business.
Secondly, the center has a hub for entrepreneurship for immigrants. Providing them the training necessary to start a business in the United States and connecting them with lending institutions so they can access some capital. And we’ll help those already established with technical support.
Finally, we believe you can’t have an inclusive economy without an inclusive democracy. We’re focusing on citizenship by having a permanent campaign to encourage people to apply for citizenship and be engaged through civic engagement. Immigrants need to be a part of the political discourse, so they can have their voices heard. It’s very important.
What are the biggest challenges new Mainers face upon arrival?
The biggest challenge for anyone coming here is learning the language. Many people come with skills or some abilities to learn a new skill. But whether or not you want to do business, or get a job, the language is key. I honestly believe the language is one of the biggest barriers to becoming fully integrated and thrive. There needs to be opportunities for immigrants to learn English quickly.
Many immigrants I know work, their problem is not necessarily finding a job. But when you have someone that doesn’t speak English, it’s hard to get hired. You need to speak the language.
Employers want people that are ready to work. We see an aging population leaving jobs in Maine, and we need to replace those people leaving them.
Has any aspect of your work changed at with Trump as President?
Immigrant integration is a very complex issue. Before Trump, for three years I worked on the defensive. [Nahimana worked previously at the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition.] There were already budget discussions that impacted immigrants. There were proposals by Governor LePage to cut General Assistance to asylum seekers.
The organization continued to work on the defensive; we weren't driving the narrative. We weren't telling our side of the story. Why do people want to come here? What are their aspirations? What are their dreams? And what are we doing to get our goals accomplished? Now we built a very modern and nice space where we want to tell our story. We want to thrive, succeed and become contributing members of society.
The Trump administration has triggered something positive in many members of the Portland community. We’re getting support from them. Because of his attacks on communities of color, we are seeing people coming out, fighting back and supporting immigration and integration.
By attacks, do you mean Trump’s proposed travel ban?
Not just the travel ban, but the wall, and the narrative that anyone coming from elsewhere is unwelcome. The climate of deportations we’re seeing now. The message coming out of Washington is not what people believe in.
Will the Center also help refugees?
Absolutely. We use the word immigrant because no matter where you come from, or how you’re getting here, you’re an immigrant. We’re not discriminating based on one's immigration status.
Legally, a refugee comes with a residency permit. An asylum seeker has to apply for asylum and be allowed to come into the country. When people are here and are waiting for their status, they apply for a 150-day work permit but they face the same barriers as other immigrants — [such as] language, finding a house. There is housing discrimination against immigrants.
What about Maine is attractive to immigrants?
Politically, Portland’s the best place in Maine where you have a great support for immigrants. I came to Maine to visit an old classmate that I met at the University of Burundi. When I arrived I saw that there was already a Burundian community here. That was attractive to me. It’s very important when you’re a newcomer that you find someone from your own country who speaks the same language. That’s hard to find in a very big city or rural state where you’re by yourself. People go where they can find their same communities. Naturally, immigrants help other immigrants.
I like this state. I don’t think I would be able to do what I do in another state. People are very welcoming here. There is some improvement needed of course, but I’ve seen very few people coming to Maine and then leaving. I’ve seen people leave and come back. It has a quality of life that all people can connect to.
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