Maxwell Chikuta held a crowd spellbound with a YouTube video.
The Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project launched its CeleSoiree, a celebration of immigration through the performing arts, with a reception featuring Inaugural poet Richard Blanco. And it was no surprise that Blanco captivated ILAP supporters with a reading of his poetry, much of which addresses the Cuban-American immigration experience.
More surprising was that Chikuta, who spoke about being a former ILAP client, was able to juxtapose his story and a popular patriotic song to create such a visceral emotional impact among the crowd.
“That is why we’re here,” said Anne Underwood, a local attorney with a personal interest in immigration law. “We want to be sure they have every opportunity to be incorporated fully in our social mix.”
It has been seven years since Chikuta left the Republic of Congo, where more than 5 million have died and 2 million have been displaced by civil unrest.
“I never knew about Portland, Maine, in my life,” he said. But because of the support of ILAP staff and volunteers, that’s where he found himself.
“I am a hard worker where I come from,” he said, explaining that he had been successful in the Congo. But he lost everything when he immigrated, and he and his wife struggled emotionally with having to leave two children behind.
Chikuta worked to improve his English, and he got his GED in 2004. Then an associate’s degree in 2006. Then a bachelor’s degree in 2009. Then a master’s. Then a second bachelor’s. And now he’s a PhD candidate, studying cybersecurity.
Last year was his proudest achievement: He became a citizen.
Chikuta’s strong desire to give back to his community is evident in the number of organizations in which he is actively involved: the United Way, Habitat for Humanity, American Red Cross, Portland Public Schools, and Friends of Portland Adult Education.
As he concluded his story, Chikuta played the YouTube video, a familiar song, “Proud To Be an American,” by Lee Greenwood.
And he received a second standing ovation that was a surge of American pride — and of welcome.
ILAP has helped thousands of immigrants in Maine with all aspects of immigration law, whether they are looking for work authorization, green cards, or political asylum. One of them is Chikuta’s friend Alain Nkulu, who came from the same province in the Congo five years ago and now calls Portland home.
“Maxwell’s story is just so moving,” said Blanco, who described his own immigration story as a gentler one because he was more the product of others’ decisions. His mother was 7 months pregnant when she left Cuba for Spain, and shortly after that his parents immigrated to the United States. “I was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to America,” he is known to say. His first baby photo was the one for his green card — at 45 days old.
But Blanco’s mother — who appears frequently in his poetry — left Cuba with just one suitcase, most of which was taken up by family photos, her wedding veil, and a doorknob from her home. She lost touch with all her relatives — for decades –to give her children a better life. And so, Blanco said, ILAP’s mission is close to his heart.
“We represent those who are fleeing persecution, and we enhance their ability to become full members of Maine society,” said Jen Archer, president of the ILAP board of directors. “And they become extremely productive members of society.”
Last year ILAP assisted more than 3,000 people from 100 different countries of origin throughout the state of Maine. Since opening its doors as a staffed agency in 2000, ILAP has helped more than 20,000 low-income immigrants navigate the complex U.S. immigration system.
Husband and wife Sachim Hejaji and Shirin Sanal of Falmouth both immigrated from India more than 13 years ago.
“It doesn’t feel like you’re an American until you have the accent,” joked Hejaji, who is now a naturalized citizen.
She left India for higher education, and he left for “a sense of adventure.” But, as part of the growing immigrant population in Maine, they support ILAP’s work with those seeking political asylum.
He works for Johnson & Johnson from his home office, and she is a pulmonary critical care specialist at St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston. Their eldest child was born in India.
“And we have a younger one who is a Mainah,” Hejaji said of his 5-year-old son, who has never known another home.
CeleSoiree included hors d’oeurvres from a variety of ethnic cuisines, a live auction, and music from the Pihcintu Multinational Children’s Chorus and the Batimbo Beats, Burundian drummers. The event raised about $40,000 in support of ILAP, much of which was through its sponsors.
Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough. She can be contacted at: