Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition, is coordinating community volunteers at the emergency shelter setup for asylum seekers at the Portland Expo. Many of her volunteer cooks and translators are also immigrants, from the countries the newcomers are from. Chitam was born, raised and college educated in Zambia. She moved to Maine in 2000.

PORTLAND, Maine — The city’s immigrant community is stepping up to help with a sudden influx of asylum seekers staying at an emergency shelter setup in the Portland Exposition building. Dozens of already-settled immigrants from the newcomers’ home countries are volunteering to cook and translate.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive. People are just ready to help,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, standing in front of the Expo.

Chatim and her organization are helping organize the volunteers currently working in three shifts a day.

According to Portland officials, as of Friday morning, 177 people were staying at the shelter, which is providing health screenings as well as food and shelter.

[South Portland considers new shelter, more funding to assist influx of asylum seekers]

Most of the new asylum seekers, who started arriving in the city from the Mexican border this week, are from Congo and Angola in central Africa. They speak Portugese, French and Lingala. Portland already has sizable communities from those places who know the language, the culture and the food.

The newcomers are better able to communicate with people who are familiar not just with their language, but with their customs and culture as well. Many in Portland’s central African community also have similar experiences as those now seeking help, making them uniquely qualified interpreters.

“People are opening up more to people who are speaking their language, explaining what they’ve been through, what they need,” Chatim said. “It’s been really great to see those dynamics. Without the volunteers, this would be hard to do.”

Local community food programs Preble Street and Wayside are providing food for the emergency shelter. The sandwiches, chili and pasta offered have been a big change for the asylum seekers.

“Food has been a very big culture shock,” Chatim said.

To help with that transition, her organization is also organizing local immigrants to cook familiar food at the shelter. The asylum seekers are also volunteering to help with the cooking, further cementing bonds between the established community and the new Mainers.

“It’s been really great to see the women offering to help cook the food,” Chatim said. “It’s amazing.”

[USM opens up 200-bed dorm in Gorham to help asylum seekers]

All volunteers at the shelter have been vetted by a community organization like Chatim’s or by the United Way.

“People really want to volunteer but we’re working to make sure they’re properly vetted. There are a lot of kids here, “ said Kristen Dow, interim director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department. “The doors are all locked, [though] guests who are staying here are free to come and go as they please.”

Chatim is organizing a community meeting Friday night at 5 p.m. at Gateway Community Services on Forest Avenue to recruit more volunteer cooks and interpreters. They’ll be discussing ways to help move the new Mainers out of the shelter and start the long process of integrating them into a life in Maine.

“It’s been thrilling just to see the response,” Chatim said. “When it comes to helping our neighbors, we do, we just come around.”

The City of Portland set up a “text-to-donate” line for monetary donations (text EXPO to 91999). For more information and other ways to donate, click here. Those wishing to volunteer are being asked to first sign up at .

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.