Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal to board a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport in August. Refugees from the country, which came under Taliban control last month, could come to Bangor if the move was approved by the federal government. Credit: Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP

While there are no plans to settle Afghan refugees coming to Maine in the Bangor area, that could change with approval from the federal government.

Catholic Charities of Maine has applied through its national parent organization for the U.S. State Department’s approval to settle refugees in the Bangor area in the future, said Hannah DeAngelis, the organization’s director of refugee and immigration services. Current regulations require that all refugees be settled within 100 miles of the organization’s base in Portland, which puts Bangor off limits.

Maine is expected to see 60-100 refugees from Afghanistan between next month and March 2022, DeAngelis said. They will arrive at Portland International Jetport from eight U.S. military bases across the country.

Many Afghans fled their country as it came under the control of the Islamic extremist group the Taliban last month. The administration of President Joe Biden requested funding from Congress to resettle 95,000 refugees by September 2022.

A change in where refugees can be settled in Maine could bring refugees from Afghanistan and other places to Bangor in the future and bring new cultural influences to a city that is almost 90 percent white. New arrivals could also help reverse recent losses in Bangor’s population. The city’s population declined by nearly 1,300 residents from 2010 to 2020, a larger loss than in any other community in Maine, according to U.S. Census data.  

The majority of Afghan refugees will be settled in the Portland area, DeAngelis said, where most of Maine’s Afghan-American community lives and where many of the refugees can be close to family members. There is also a smaller Afghan community around Augusta.

Besides family ties, Catholic Charities looks for communities that have community resources and affordable housing. They see such resources in Biddeford, Lewiston and Augusta, DeAngelis said.

But the organization also sees hope in Bangor, where it has long been prohibited from settling new refugees. Catholic Charities of Maine’s parent organization, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, applied to allow settling in the Bangor area through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in the spring, DeAngelis said.

DeAngelis noted that the city has multilingual resources and the Community Connector public transportation system, as many refugees settling in the U.S. rely on public transportation, especially when they first arrive. She said her group has recently met with a number of local leaders, including medical providers, in the Bangor area.

Bangor City Councilor Clare Davitt said she strongly supported settlement of Afghan refugees in Bangor. It is unclear what role the council would play in resettlement, but she believes “we would do everything we could to help out.”

While she noted that there has been racism in Bangor — including the recent vandalization of a Pakistani-American man’s car with racial slurs — she said the population had long shown a willingness to help those in need. She believes they would welcome new residents from Afghanistan.

“New folks coming to our area is always great,” said Davitt, who noted the important role immigrants can play in starting small businesses. “I can only see how that would be a boon for Bangor.”

If refugee resettlement in Bangor and surrounding communities were approved, Catholic Charities would make an effort to settle multiple families of the same nationality in the area so they could create communities and avoid cultural isolation, DeAngelis said.

“Bangor absolutely has a number of resources we’re looking for,” DeAngelis said. “It’s absolutely a place of community support and interest in welcoming new people.”

The area has not seen many refugees in recent years.

Only nine of the more than 4,000 refugees resettled in Maine from 2002 to 2019 went to Penobscot County, according to data from the Refugee Processing Center provided to the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper.

Five of those refugees settled in Bangor and four in Orono. Seven were from Iraq, one was from Iran and one was from Myanmar.

DeAngelis said she and her team were anxiously awaiting the new arrivals from Afghanistan, especially after not being able to settle as many refugees for most of the past five years. The administration of former President Donald Trump sharply reduced the number of refugees accepted into the country.

“We’re grateful we’re in a position to help,” DeAngelis said.