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After Expo closes, Brunswick welcomes 60 asylum seekers

September 6, 2019

Courtesy of Julie Pike

Over the summer, just three miles from campus, nearly 60 asylum seekers were welcomed to the Brunswick community. The group is just a fraction of the 450 asylees who have journeyed from sub-Saharan Africa to Maine since June.

The Portland Press Herald reported that many asylum seekers traveled from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo to South and Central America and then journeyed up to Texas’s southern border. After filing their initial paperwork, families then traveled to Portland by bus. Many told the Press Herald that they had heard that Portland would offer shelter and financial assistance while asylum cases are being processed.

City officials designated the Portland Exposition Building (Portland Expo)—the basketball arena home to the Maine Red Claws—as an emergency shelter to house the asylees. But when the basketball season began on August 15, everyone was relocated to towns across the state, including Brunswick.

WELCOME TO BRUNSWICK

After hearing  that more housing was needed, Chris Rhoades, owner of the property development firm Brunswick Landing Venture, offered three months of rent-free assistance for asylees at the Brunswick landing development.

Most of the 60 asylum seekers in Brunswick are living at these Brunswick Landing properties, but others are being hosted by Brunswick residents and some are staying in subsidized apartments.

In response to the influx of families arriving in Brunswick, the town created a task force focused on welcoming its new neighbors and providing support for the asylees’ transition.

Per recommendation of the task force, the town of Brunswick established the Brunswick Community Support Fund to subsidize housing and provide basic necessities. The town’s GoFundMe page has raised $5,505, in addition to cash and check donations. The Orient was unable to obtain the total amount in the Community Support Fund.

The task force also recommended that the town hire a cultural broker to serve as a liaison between city officials and asylum seekers. In August, Nsiona Nguizani was hired full-time by the town for at least six months. Nguizani is the President of the Angolan Community of Maine and speaks English, French, Portuguese and Lingala.

Nguizani has worked closely with the Brunswick School Department to help families with young children adjust to the transition.

COLLEGE INVOLVEMENT

Throughout the summer, representatives from the College, Portland and Brunswick met to discuss how to help these new Mainers.

“Early in this crisis, the College reached out to Portland city officials to see if we could assist with temporary housing on campus or with other services,” President Clayton Rose wrote in an email to students and staff this week. “While they ultimately declined our offer, the McKeen Center continues to stay connected—particularly with regard to the asylum seekers now living in Brunswick—and has plans to bring together those at the College willing to help and to facilitate language and other services moving forward.”

In an email to the Orient, Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Scott Hood elaborated. The College could only offer housing until early August, but Portland officials were looking for long-term housing.

Sarah Seames, director of the McKeen Center for the Common Good, wrote in an email to the Orient that representatives from the McKeen Center have met with many people involved with the immigrant community, including Nguizani.

“We look forward to working with [Nguizani] as things unfold and anticipate Bowdoin students being able to volunteer both in ongoing ways and with one-time needs such as drives for winter clothing,” Seames wrote.

Seames also noted that already established student volunteer groups such as Bowdoin Bear PALS—a group of Bowdoin students who work as English tutors for speakers of other languages—will work with Brunswick’s newest students. The McKeen Center is working to coordinate other volunteer opportunities as well.

“We may also provide additional language services to the schools to help with interpreting or translation for parents, where appropriate,” Seames wrote.

This summer, students worked with asylum seekers through various internships in the Portland area.

One such student, Mohamed Kilani ’21, worked with families at Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a non-profit that seeks to provide legal aid to immigrants in Maine. Kilani immigrated from Jordan to Maine ten years ago and hopes students will welcome the families through small gestures.

“There are little things people do to make you feel like a human being,” he said. “You can do little things. If you are walking on campus waving, smiling—things like that really change everything.”

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