PORTLAND, Maine — On Wednesday, as their young children danced to a popular Afrobeat track booming from a small sound system in the middle of the gymnasium floor, families among the group of Portland newcomers making temporary residence in the Expo building told stories of their perilous journey from West Africa.
Blaise Phanzu and his wife Jeanette left the Democratic Republic of Congo three or four months ago, Blaise said through an interpreter. They didn’t know where Maine was, they hadn’t heard about it. “We asked God where to go, and in collaboration with God we chose to come to Maine,” Blaise said. The family is here with only one of their four children, they say.
The group of migrants — 222 as of Thursday morning — arrived to Portland on buses from San Antonio last week. Here legally seeking asylum, they will be beginning that process from scratch in the coming weeks, having been routed around some typical steps of the process by U.S. immigration officials after an unexpected policy change. Health officials in Portland and San Antonio have said that rumors that the migrants are carrying Ebola are false.
A couple in their forties, Alphonse and his wife Anita left Angola in January with their six children aged 7 to 23. They said that one of the reasons they left Angola was because of problems with the government corruption. “There are rich families, but a lot of poverty,” Alphonse said. “Everything was in crisis, it was hard to find jobs.” In Angola, Alphonse worked as a car mechanic.
The boat from Africa brought their family to Sao Paolo, Brazil, and they took another boat from Colombia across the Gulf of Panama. Besides that, they walked and bused across South and Central America and Mexico, Alphonse said. There are many checkpoints along the way, and some families are detained longer than others, so the communities they traveled with changed often.
[As Portland surges with newcomers, here’s a look at the process of seeking asylum and why it’s different this time]
The stretch between Panama and Costa Rica was the most treacherous, Alphonse and other migrants said. Speaking in French, they described the “Mountain of Death” — possibly Costa Rica’s Cerro de la Muerte in the Talamanca Range — which took six hours to hike up and six to hike down, a route along which they encountered snakes, scorpions and the remains of many dead travelers. They crossed through the jungle for 10 days, and Alphonse and Anita said the family often had to rely on guides extorting bribes in exchange for directions. Bandits would take the family’s money and clothes, cutting off locks and braids of women’s hair, a common hiding spot for travelers carrying cash.
They spent 2 ½ months in Mexico before getting into San Antonio, Texas, where they boarded a bus to Portland. “Now I’m very good in geography,” Alphonse said.
“Everyone says that it’s a good social life here [in Portland] for immigrant people,” Alphonse said. “Maine accepts immigrants and is happy to have immigrants. We feel welcomed here.”
Anita is eager to know what happens next. Her family needs shoes and jeans, she said. It’s really hard to fall asleep in the Expo, and with many small children, mornings inside the complex begin early. There’s one set of bathrooms, and a lot of people. Also, there’s nothing to do. The migrants are free to come and go as they please, but Anita said there is not much incentive to leave the Expo without knowing anyone outside. “This is no condition for a family of eight,” Anita said.
While life inside the Expo has some comforts — meals are provided by Preble Street Resource Center and the group was treated to a Wednesday performance by the Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus of youth singers, including some songs Alphonse identified as Angolan traditionals — it is still unclear what comes next for the newcomers. An offer to house them at the University of Southern Maine is no longer being considered. On Wednesday, Portland city officials met with the Greater Portland Council of Governments’ Metro Regional Coalition. At the meeting, an option for local developers and private property owners to find vacant apartments or facilities to house 100 families was discussed, News Center Maine reported.
Kimangu Nzenza Pitagor, a man in his forties, spoke to us in French and Portuguese. Holding his daughter Victoria, who Kimangu said turns two today — she was born en route while he and his wife were traveling through Brazil — he remembers the precise day he decided to leave the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It was the 16th of December, Kimangu says, by law the final days of DRC President Joseph Kabila’s term. The leader was refusing to step down. Widespread protests against Kabila in the capital city of Kinshasa were repressed by the Congolese government, who imprisoned, tear gassed and killed people in response. Kimangu said that on the 19th of December, he saw a lot of deaths.
After that week’s protests, Kimangu said he and his wife left the Congo for Angola. They had been living in Angola for a year, he said, when a search party led by General Celestin Kanyama, a former chief of police under Joseph Kabila who was sanctioned by the U.S. for acts of violence and kidnapping against civilians, came to look for him and other Congolese refugees, including young people, living in the neighboring country. Kimangu said Kanyama was the chief of operations on December 19. “It was terrible, terrible,” Kimangu said.
Kimangu and his wife had $500 when they left Africa, paying a corrupt chief to obtain passports to get a boat to Brazil so that they could stay together. They had passports later that day.
As they traveled through Central America, Kimangu describes Haitians, Cameroonans and other Africans all hiking together. They stuck together in groups of 25 to 30 people, traveling through jungles and mountains, carrying the baby on their backs and suitcases on their heads. When sleeping, groups were a little smaller, 15 to 20. “You’ll have the Cubans on one side and the black people together on another,” Kimangu said. In Kimangu’s journey, Cubans acted as guides. They were the ones who had phones, and would inform the other migrants where to find food and water.
At the border in Mexico, they slept in tents. When it rained, water seeped in, and Kimangu said he would take the baby and wait in the bathroom until the rain stopped. In Texas, Kimangu said they were given money to get to the Salvation Army. Adults were given $40 and $20 for the baby. It’s unclear who issued that money, though possible it came from Catholic Charities, the same source who purchased bus tickets for these migrants to come to Maine.
Kimangu doesn’t have friends here, he says. He chose Portland because he saw the U.S. map and picked a spot as far north as he could. He’s not afraid of the cold, he says; he wanted to be near the ocean. Like Alphonse, who he met in Colombia, Kimangu worked as a car mechanic in Africa, a vocation he hopes to continue here. “It’s a job that’s easy to get in the Congo,” he said.
While we spoke and her teenage daughters ate lunch, Alphonse’s wife Anita fed the toddler son of Anilson Kotxi Songo, a 26-year-old from Angola who said he is excited by the possibility of work here. Anilson came with his wife and her two brothers, leaving the 19th or 20th of February. He and his wife grew up together — “everyone likes a good love story,” he said — and that they would like their son to be able to live here, study here, and grow up here in Portland.
Authorities at the border first sent Anilson and his family to California, but there was no room for them, he said. They were given an address where they could sleep, but when they arrived, it wasn’t as advertised, and they couldn’t stay during the day. After four days, Anilson said they took the advice of someone he met in Mexico, a Portland resident, who told Anilson that he should come to Portland.
“Now we’re just waiting. Waiting and praying,” Anilson said. “The waiting is hard, but the hardest is behind us.”