PORTLAND — Imagine moving to a country where everything is unfamiliar — the language, the culture, means of transportation, housing, and daily chores.

Those who are from America might not think twice about going to the grocery store, but for refugees coming to Portland it is a completely foreign experience.

The American Friend program, connecting Americans to refugees relocating to this country, has been in existence since the 1970s. Aimee Vlachos-Bullard, volunteer coordinator for Catholic Charities of Maine, Refugee and Immigration Services, said with between 200 and 300 refugees arriving in Maine annually, there is a great need for local residents to volunteer their time to help acclimate families to the country and culture.

“It’s something we can do right here in Portland,” volunteer Helen Pelletier said. “They are wonderful people and I admire them immensely. They’re so willing to take on daunting challenges,” she said of the family her family is paired with. “It’s been a pleasure to try and help them tackle some challenges and become friends.”

Pelletier’s family, including her husband John Spritz and children Charlotte Spritz, 14, and Henry Spritz, 9, have been helping Iraqi refugees Zaineb Marwan and Luay Mohammed and their children, Mariam and Ahmed Quasem.

While case managers help the families that come to Portland resettle, Vlachos-Bullard said there was a piece missing to welcome these families into the community.

“The American Friend program fills that void,” she said.

Volunteers are asked to commit to at least six months of working with a family, which can be volunteering for one hour a week or more, Vlachos-Bullard said. This minimum requirement was based on the idea that it takes time for families to make a connection and open up, forming a relationship, she said.

The commitment does not have to include extravagant tasks. Vlachos-Bullard said some volunteers will help with navigating public transportation or explaining grocery stores and how to shop on a budget.

Recently, Pelletier assisted Mohammed with learning the rules of the road. In his native country he had his license, but with the laws to abide by on the road in Maine, he had to apply for his permit and take the written exam and driving test for his license.

“Driving here is a different experience than there,” Pelletier said. “We spent a lot of time driving with him and arranged for the exam. He passed it a week and a half ago.”

“That felt really great we were able to help them with that,” she said.

Marwan said having Pelletier’s family around has made it easier to adjust to life in Maine.

“Helen and John have become like a sister and brother to us, like family. We are very lucky to have met them,” she said.

Bringing her whole family into the experience, Charlotte and Henry Spritz have also gained from helping Marwan and Mohammed’s family.

“At first it felt like this was about helping them and getting to know them, and now it feels like an actual personal connection,” Charlotte said.

“It feels like we’re making a big contribution to their entire family, and it makes me feel really good about helping them out,” Henry said. “And at the same time, they’re kind of helping us back by giving us a taste of a different kind of family.”

In light of learning from each other, Vlachos-Bullard is anxious to kick off a new program next week. “Around the World” is an effort to connect refugee children with Maine-born children.

“It will have them get together and learn from each other,” she said, adding it will help children understand different backgrounds and also similarities between each other.

In either case, both programs are embracing the goal of making connections and welcoming refugees into the community.

“At some point, it becomes not a volunteer project, but a strong relationship with people you care about,” Pelletier said. “They have been interested in sharing their lives with us and learning about our lives.”

“The more people can stay connected, the better,” she said.


Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: [email protected]