Here is how it works in Maxwell Chikuta’s native Democratic Republic of Congo:
“In my village, when you come to live with us, we welcome you because you don’t have anything,” Maxwell, 43, explained last week. “Every Saturday, every community member will come and take you to the field, help you dig your field. The chief will collect seed for you that year so that you can plant your own field. Then, at harvest time, you will have food.”
And until then?
“During that year, before harvest, the community will take care of you. But when harvest comes and you have your own meals, you have an obligation to also help elderly people who don’t go to the field, who don’t have children to help them. You contribute to them.”
And after that?
“Don’t expect my community to help you next year, like taking you every Saturday to your field,” Maxwell said, raising an index finger. “No. We do that only for a year. Then you are part of the community.”
Friday morning, in a crowded conference room at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services center in South Portland, Maxwell raised his hand alongside 14 other immigrants and proudly became an American citizen.
Maybe you saw Maxwell a few years back, standing in line at a Portland supermarket with a wad of food stamps in his hand.
Maybe you dismissed him as just another immigrant already trapped in the notorious “cycle of dependency” because he came here with no English, no education beyond the seventh grade and thus couldn’t possibly carry his own weight as a productive, contributing member of American society.
Maybe you were wrong.
“It’s really a sad story,” Maxwell said. “But I tell people my story so at least maybe they know they are better off.”
IT BEGAN on May 13, 1978, a Saturday.
Maxwell, then only 10, lived with his father, stepmother and her two children outside Kolwezi, a city in the mineral-rich Katanga province of what was then the country of Zaire.
Following his parents’ divorce two years earlier, his mother and two sisters had moved to another village — Maxwell would never lay eyes on them again.
His older brother, meanwhile, had been dispatched to live with an uncle, leaving young Maxwell the odd child out in a new family where he performed all the menial labor while his step-siblings became the “kings and queens of the house.”
Each Saturday, Maxwell would run to the village center to take down the flag outside his school, signifying the start of the weekend. But as he awoke on this particular morning, he heard what he thought were the village drums pounding off in the distance.
“We were trained in the village to hear the sound of the drums,” Maxwell said. “There might be a lion, so they play the sound of the drum that says ‘Stay away!’ Or, ‘We are being invaded — come help us!’ But that day, the interpretation of the drums didn’t make sense to me.”
Running toward the village, Maxwell heard one of his teachers calling from a window. “Maxwell, stop!” she hollered. “Go back home!”
“It was not the drums,” Maxwell said. “Those were the sounds of the guns shooting. Thank God for that teacher sending me home.”
The Battle of Kolwezi, between the French army and local rebels who had taken an estimated 3,000 Europeans hostage, lasted just under two weeks and left some 700 Africans dead. It also forever changed young Maxwell’s life.
“That’s the last time I saw my father,” he said, pausing to compose himself. “He didn’t make it.”
What happened to him?
“I don’t know.”
Maxwell remembers how, a few days later, two large planes with red crosses emblazoned on the sides flew in circles over the village and dropped parachutes tethered to boxes of food and medical supplies. How a short time later, relief workers arrived and continued the handouts.
Maxwell was astounded.
“These were white people from Europe and America — and they came to help us!” he said, still marveling at the memory. “They left their families and came to help us, you know?”
With his father gone and his stepmother focused exclusively on her two children, Maxwell took to the streets for almost two years — a 10-year-old adrift in a country that for decades would remain awash in often deadly turmoil.
He survived, thanks in large part to a maternal grandfather who eventually tracked Maxwell down and took him in. But his grandparents could only help so much — after gaining admission to a middle school in the city, Maxwell’s limited resources forced him to drop out just before eighth grade.
Still, he persevered. He started his own business — a chain of kiosks that sold candy on the streets of Kolwezi. In 1995, he married a young woman named Sally. Soon they had two children.
But the danger remained — fueled by chronic rebellion against longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and spillover from the prolonged civil war in neighboring Rwanda. By 2003, for reasons he is still reluctant to discuss in detail, Maxwell and Sally left their two children with relatives and fled to a faraway place called Maine.
“I had heard there were Congolese already here so I could get started,” Maxwell said. “It was March or April. I remember it was cold. It was snowing. And I didn’t find anyone.”
BEFORE ARRIVING in Maine, Maxwell had pictured himself basking in the American Dream “like Eddie Murphy or Chuck Norris.” Instead, he and Sally found themselves shivering at the doorstep to Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter.
“My wife would sleep with the women and I would sleep with the men,” Maxwell recalled. “Then at 6 o’clock they wake you up, so we go to the soup kitchen for our breakfast — they have a very good breakfast at the soup kitchen — and after that we go wandering around town.”
A week or two after their arrival, a kindly shelter worker helped the young couple secure an apartment on Grant Street in Portland.
“So the city was paying for our apartment,” Maxwell said. Touching his chest, he added, “That’s why, you see, I have heart for the community.”
Unable to speak English, Maxwell enrolled in Portland Adult Education’s English for Speakers of Other Languages class. Soon thereafter, adult education director Rob Wood nudged him toward the General Educational Development program and a high school equivalency diploma.
Maxwell earned the diploma in January of 2004. He’d been in America just nine months.
“We all knew he could do it,” Wood recalled last week. “It was just this hurdle he needed to get over.”
The first of many.
His English improving by the day, Maxwell landed a job washing linens at Maine Medical Center. Around the same time, encouraged by his adult education teachers, he took the entrance examination at Southern Maine Community College.
“You can put this in there,” he said, pointing to my notebook. “I failed that entrance exam three times. Because of the language. But I passed the fourth time and I was accepted.”
He attended class each evening after a full day’s work at the hospital — by now he’d advanced from laundry room worker to operating room orderly.
Then in 2006, Maxwell graduated from SMCC with an associate degree in heating, air conditioning and refrigeration. That led to a job in Maine Medical Center’s engineering department.
On Maxwell went to the University of Southern Maine’s School of Engineering, where he graduated in 2009 with a bachelor of science degree.
He still wasn’t finished.
“I transferred to the Muskie School of Public Service, where I got my master’s in 2011,” Maxwell said.
A master’s degree? In what?
“Public policy and management,” he replied.
This month, Maxwell enrolled in Minnesota-based Walden University’s online doctoral program. Within the next year or two, he promised, he’ll have his Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in public health.
Through it all, Maxwell continues to work the night shift at Maine Medical Center. He and Sally managed to buy a house in Portland’s North Deering neighborhood, where they now live with their two American-born children and the two older kids they finally retrieved from Congo in 2005.
In short, it’s a long way from the food stamps, the MaineCare, the general assistance and the rest of the social safety net that cradled Maxwell, Sally and the kids until, like the newcomer to his village, he could stand on his own.
Yet for all his upward mobility, Maxwell hasn’t forgotten that old village rule. That shared responsibility for those climbing the ladder below him.
MAXWELL REACHED into his pocket for an index card covered front-to-back with his careful printing.
“This is my community involvement,” he said.
He’s a member of Habitat for Humanity’s local family selection committee.
He’s on the city of Portland’s Community Development Block Grant Committee, which in the coming months will allocate $2.4 million in community development grants. At the same time, he’ll serve on a recently established community transition team for Emmanuel Caulk, Portland’s new school superintendent.
When an ice storm hit southern Maine in 2007, Maxwell left his home (which was without power) and supervised a shelter at the Portland Expo as a member of the American Red Cross of Maine’s disaster action team.
Last year, Maine Medical Center designated Maxwell its loaned executive to the United Way of Greater Portland. Now, on his own precious time, he serves on the United Way’s public policy and finance committees and volunteers as a member of its speakers bureau.
“The reason I am here is because you put this smile on my face,” Maxwell told 50 L.L. Bean employees at a United Way rally in Freeport on Wednesday evening — one of four such appearances he made in two days. “You might wonder why I say ‘you.’ It is because you are in the community that helped put me where I am today.”
After the rousing speech, a young worker, himself a native of Congo, approached Maxwell and asked if he might help the L.L. Bean immigrant workers organize a soccer team.
“Of course,” Maxwell replied without hesitation, scribbling his number on an index card. “Call me. We’ll do it.”
Another employee, the son of Irish immigrants, told Maxwell he once volunteered at the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine’s Portland pool. Earlier, Maxwell had said that’s where his kids learned to swim.
“Thank you,” Maxwell said, smiling and extending his hand to the red-bearded L.L. Bean worker. “Thank you for what you are doing in the community.”
FRIDAY MORNING, dressed in a crisp, gray business suit, shiny black shoes, pink shirt and red tie, a noticeably more reserved Maxwell walked into the immigration center in South Portland. At his side were Sally (he calls her “my world”) and their teenage daughter Sharon, a sophomore at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland.
Nearby stood director Wood and other staffers from Portland Adult Education and Portland lawyers James and Margaret O’Keefe, who helped Maxwell — at no charge — navigate his way from political asylum all the way to citizenship.
“I’m personally just blown away at the content of his character,” said James O’Keefe, founder of the Portland-based Immigration Law Group and a volunteer with the Immigration Legal Advocacy Project. “He’s so smart and confident and just the kind of guy you want to help meet his full potential.”
Shortly before 9 a.m., Maxwell rose from his seat with fellow immigrants from Bosnia, Burundi, Chile, Colombia, Morocco, Poland, Cambodia, Germany, Somalia, the United Kingdom and Vietnam. As they took the oath of citizenship, sang the national anthem and recited the Pledge of Allegiance, Maxwell’s near-perfect English rang out clearly amid the international chorus.
His story, he insists, is far from over. With his ever-ascending academic degrees, Maxwell’s counting on a better-paying job to ease the financial strain that any American family of six faces these days.
“I am just above the poverty line, so I’m not yet comfortable,” he confided, “But I am glad. I pay tax with pleasure. With pleasure.”
This, after all, is his village now. A place where you lift up the individual for the common good. A place where help, once received, must always be passed on.
“This is not even a dream come true,” said Maxwell Chikuta, our fellow American. “This is a wonder. This is a miracle.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: