Amnesty International invited local activists to campus on Wednesday for a panel discussion about the difficulties of providing aid to the refugee population in Maine, a state with one of the most homogenous populations in the nation.
The panel, titled “Local Voices, Global Perspectives: Refugee and Immigrant Rights in Maine,“ aimed to raise awareness about problem’s caused by the state’s burgeoning refugee population. In the last 30 years, over 12,000 refugees have moved to the state from Somalia, Iraq, Congo, Rwanda, and Sudan. They have settled primarily in Portland and Lewiston, according to the Maine State Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Data from the Portland Refugee Services Program shows that in 2010, 793 refugees arrived in the city, fleeing from violence in their native countries.
“When we think about genocides and global conflicts we often can kind of distance ourselves from it,” said Monica Bouyea ’14, co-president of Bowdoin’s Amnesty International chapter. “I think it’s really important for students to understand that these individuals are here in Maine.”
Janice Jaffe, adjunct lecturer in Spanish and McKeen Center research associate, moderated the discussion.
“Today, the movement of people in the world is one of [its] defining features,” Jaffe said.
The panel featured three speakers, Sebastien Nahimana, of Catholic Charities of Maine Refugee and Immigration Services, Fatuma Hussein, of United Somali Women of Maine, and LuzMarina Serrano, of Maine Migrant Health.
“[The panelists] reflect a diversity of needs of these various refugee communities,” said Bouyea.
Nahimana serves as the translation coordinator for his organization. He helps refugees find homes and adjust to modern amenities that they may not be familiar with.
“Fundamentally, someone needs to have a place to be,” said Nahimana. “We’re trying to give them that humanity back that they have lost by being dislocated.”
Nahimana also helped create Language Access for New Americans, which translates documents for refugees from their native language into English. The program currently provide translation services for over 40 languages.
Hussein founded United Somali Women of Maine in 2001. “The vision and mission of the center is to advocate for refugees that are women and to advocate for a system change,” said Hussein.
She estimated that there are 5,000 immigrants in Maine capable of working but unable to because they lack formal education.
“We work for a better future for the generations to come,” said Hussein. “We can’t get rid of this poverty cycle, we have to break through.”
At Maine Migrant health, Serrano works primarily with Hispanic migrant workers to educate them about health issues. “I help bridge the gap between them and our own healthcare system,” said Serrano.
Though all three panelists represent very different constituencies, they said that they encounter similar problems in helping recent immigrants settle in the predominantly white state.
Even so, the panelists agreed that Maine does provide some benefits for new refugees.
“Maine offers a less threatening place to start a life,” Nahimana said.