Bangor’s long wait to welcome refugees is almost over. A Syrian family of nine — two adults and seven children including an infant — is expected to arrive next month.
While living in Bangor’s Little City, they will need interpreters, English lessons, warm clothing, furniture, culturally appropriate food, toys and help navigating their new home. Because the U.S. government has approved their entry, the family will qualify for welfare benefits, MaineCare coverage and job training, and they will have all the same rights citizens have except the right to vote and hold certain offices.
The family will be the first of 20 to 50 refugees from the Middle East and Africa who are expected to be resettled in the Queen City through Catholic Charities of Maine over the next 10 months. The resettlement is taking shape a year after the federal government approved the resettlement of refugees in the Bangor area. Catholic Charities has had a federal contract to resettle refugees in Maine since 1975, but it did not have an office in Penobscot County until last month.
The expansion from southern Maine into Bangor was sparked by the rising cost of housing in Portland and Lewiston, the aging workforce in Penobscot County and the local community’s willingness to welcome refugees, along with available services and job opportunities.
Melissa Bucholz, a native of North Dakota, is the site manager for the local program. She and a case manager work out of the St. Michael’s Center on South Main Street in Brewer.
Bucholz’s interest in helping refugees was sparked while the 25-year-old was a first-year student at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
“I volunteered with an organization that provided services to new Americans,” she said. “That sparked my passion to be helpful to refugees, and my experiences increased that passion.”
Bucholz earned a master’s degree from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, where her studies focused on forced migration. Since starting her new job last month, she has been meeting with community leaders and partners. On Tuesday, she led an online informational meeting attended by more than 50 people sponsored by the Maine Multicultural Center.
The formation of the Maine Multicultural Center was set in motion by then-Bangor City Council Chair Sean Faircloth in the late summer of 2016 in response to a growing concern about the Bangor-area’s shrinking workforce and a recognition of the need for greater diversity. Community and faith leaders packed the Bangor High School cafeteria at the group’s first organizational meeting that year.
But national politics intervened with the election of President Donald Trump, whose administration slowed refugee resettlement to a trickle. The election of President Joe Biden changed immigration policy but the coronavirus pandemic kept the United States from reopening its borders to refugees for nearly two years.
Refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution in their home countries and have crossed international borders to find safety, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They are unable or unwilling to return because of well-founded fears of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular group or political beliefs.
Bucholz said Catholic Charities will have about two weeks’ notice before the first family arrives at Bangor International Airport from a refugee resettlement camp in Jordan. That is when the Maine Multicultural Center and local faith groups will kick into high gear. The multicultural center, located at Eastern Maine Development Corp., has a group of volunteers ready to assist the family.
A second Syrian family of seven and a man from Ethiopia are expected to arrive early next year, according to Bucholz.