PORTLAND, Maine — From home to school to work, the lives of refugees and asylum seekers received closer looks from federal and city officials this week.
On Friday, Feb. 21, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard visited Portland Adult Education and several local businesses to see how refugees and resettlement agencies are faring. Richard was accompanied by Lawrence Bartlett, state department director of refugee admissions.
“We think of this as a proud American tradition,” Richard said after Portland Adult Education students described their life experiences and job aspirations.
On Tuesday, Mayor Michael Brennan cut the ribbon at ceremonies marking the opening of Hope House at 14 Sherman St. The apartment house has been home to 13 Africans seeking political asylum for almost six months.
Hope House, which was bought by developer Richard Berman and operated by the nonprofit Hope Acts, solves the most basic question asylum seekers such as Hugues Ingabire, 21, face when they arrive in Portland.
“How am I going to get an apartment?” Ingabire said he wondered when he arrived in Portland six months ago, nearly penniless and acquainted with only one person in town.
Berman said welcoming and getting asylum seekers settled is a benefit to Maine’s future.
“This is the reverse of the brain drain,” he said.
Berman is collaborating with Allen and Sara Ewing-Merrill, co-pastors of the Chestnut United Methodist Church and founders of HopeGateWay, a community ministry serving the Parkside neighborhood, and Hope Acts.
Berman bought and funded renovations at Hope House, once the Immanuel Lutheran Church and later used for low-income housing by Portland West. The building is leased at no charge to Hope Acts.
Thirteen residents from Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo share five two- and three-bedroom apartments. They will stay at least as long as the 150 days it takes to obtain permits allowing them to work.
Berman approached the pastors about finding housing for asylum seekers, who all too often were forced to city homeless shelters or to couch-surf in friends’ apartments.
Allen Ewing-Merrill said they interviewed 25 applicants for 13 spaces before choosing residents who had the most urgent need and could help the building best become a community.
By federal standards, asylum seekers are viewed separately from refugees and not eligible for the same benefits. But Hope House provides shelter for residents of varied ages who have a range of skills and life experiences. Ewing-Merrill said Hope House residents include an engineer, a lawyer and a graphic designer.
Ingabire, who learned English in Burundi, earned his GED shortly after arriving in Portland. He attends school and has volunteered at the Salvation Army and soup kitchens.
“What has surprised me most is the heart of America,” Ingabire said. “I feel like I am at home even though I am not at home.”
Publicist Jen Dimond said she wants Brennan and other Hope House visitors to see the success of the collaboration between Berman and Hope Acts because it is understood the city does not have the resources to provide the full measure of help to refugees and asylum seekers.
Berman said city officials are doing what they can, even though there are limits.
“It seems like the city gets it,” he said. ‘It is the state that needs to wake up.”
Richard’s first stop last Friday was at Portland Adult Education on Locust Street, next to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and Catholic Charities of Maine.
Richard and Bartlett were joined by Kathy Mockler, Bonnie Bagley and Tarlan Ahmadov from Catholic Charities to observe a job skills class, where 17 African refugees wrote resumes on laptop computers.
Instructor Bridget Kahn said the course runs 20 hours per week for eight weeks, is about 6 years old and always in demand; it accepts a maximum of 20 students, who learn the essentials of job hunting and interviewing skills.
The students shared a varied range of work experiences with Richard.
Burundian Didace Yarmurewue was a civil engineer for 20 years and looking to stay in the field in America. Rwandan Jean Pierre Gatarayiha arrived six months ago and wants to become an environmental technician. Rufus Mfinigi from the Democratic Republic of Congo wants to be a social worker.
Portland Adult Education data from January showed that of 833 immigrant and refugee students enrolled in courses, 233 had earned high school degrees and 205 had university degrees. Of the 833 students, 267 had been in professional occupations spread through law, education, medicine, education, engineering and the arts.
The classes are funded in part by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services Refugee Resettlement Program and draws support from local companies including L.L. Bean, Paradigm Windows, Cintas and Westbrook-based Sigco, which manufacturers and distributes window glass and frames.
By early afternoon, Richard was on the road to Freeport for a tour of the L.L. Bean distribution facility off Desert Road. The center is staffed by a minimum of 700 people, and its workforce triples during the holiday season. Supervisor Chad Sawyer said there are at least 15 immigrant full-time workers.
Brenda Perry, a company human resources partner, said company volunteers conduct mock interviews with students.
“I try to help them see where their skills may be transferable,” she said.
Language is the most common barrier to overcome for the students, but Perry said some also need to adjust to supervision by women. With a lack of public transportation to Freeport, she said immigrant workers often carpool, which means some arrive early or stay late because of their co-workers having different schedules. Perry said all are willing to work at any job.
The company also helps immigrant workers fit in by meeting with their colleagues.
“You hear the stories people have, we try to have our employee population understand where they are coming from,” Perry said.