Economists, business leaders and politicians agree that immigration is key to reversing or at least stopping rural Maine’s population losses. And some rural towns and businesses have already started looking to immigration to improve their numbers.
But the experience of the Kalutas, the first refugee family to be resettled in a small Maine town rather than a city, shows that newcomers need more than jobs and housing if they are going to stay and contribute long term. They also need initial support with transportation, help connecting with the local community and opportunities to learn English and advance in life.
In August, the Kaluta family — 15 people from the Democratic Republic of Congo — was resettled by Catholic Charities Maine to Thomaston, population 2,781, because a nursing home there had jobs for them and agreed to provide housing and transportation to and from work. Because of Maine’s workforce shortage, their employer, DLTC Health Care, which operates a chain of long-term care facilities, had been unable to find enough employees to hire in the local community.
Although the Kaluta family members have jobs and housing, their lives in Thomaston are tenuous, as a recent Maine Focus article details. In December, just four months into their time in Thomaston, one family member — 21-year-old Thomas — left for Portland because he was frustrated by the isolation and lack of opportunities. And while the 14 family members who remain are grateful to have jobs and an apartment, they feel stuck and isolated.
“It’s a complicated equation,” Jordan, 36, the head of the family, told the BDN.
Maine can learn from the Kalutas’ experience. First, if this resettlement experiment is to be repeated, the family members will need someone they can trust who speaks at least one of their languages and who can answer their questions — how to use a thermostat, what to expect of life in the small town, who is eligible to enroll in school — to help them adjust to a new and foreign life.
The Kalutas did have a caseworker from Catholic Charities who spoke one of their languages, Swahili, but he was located over 70 miles away in Portland. And the family didn’t trust him because he rarely answered their calls and he visited them only twice in Thomaston after they moved, according to the family.
Second, refugee families will need their own transportation, to allow them to buy groceries, visit friends and get to work. When the weather was warm, the Kalutas occasionally walked the 3 miles from their home to Wal-Mart. Catholic Charities doesn’t normally instruct refugees how to drive or take the written driving test, but in a rural area without reliable public transportation it’s crucial.
Maine communities hoping to bolster their populations through immigration could learn from New Brunswick, Canada, where a refugee family from Syria arrived in July 2016, the same month the Kalutas came to Maine. The father of the family, Khalid Raslan, had no driving experience, but community volunteers taught him. By November he had a license.
Third, local areas hoping to welcome refugees need to be prepared to meet their needs. In the case of the Kalutas, faith, education and business leaders did not know in advance that the family was coming. If they had, they could have pooled resources and decided earlier how to help. They could have been there to welcome the family upon arrival, to make them feel at home and to let them know nearby help was available.
The situation the Kalutas are in is working for their employer: The nursing home now has five people in positions it was otherwise unable to fill. But whether the situation can work for the family themselves — and for other families in the future — remains to be seen.
“I have this confidence in refugee families,” Randy Capps, the director of research for U.S. programs at the research group the Migration Policy Institute, told the BDN. “They’ve been through so much. If they’re given a fair shake, they’re going to do well.”
To better ensure success for future refugee families, more coordination and support is needed to help them make the enormous transition from life in a refugee camp to life in small town Maine.