PORTLAND – In 2010, Mia left her four children and husband behind in Burundi to seek political asylum in the United States.
Her work as a clinical and social psychiatrist helping women who had been raped was not appreciated by the government in the African nation, and she was forced to flee amid threats of violence, she said.
Mia arrived in Portland and ended up in the city’s homeless shelter.
“When I came here I didn’t know anybody so I didn’t know where to go,” said Mia, who asked not to be photographed and that her last name be withheld because she feared political reprisals against her family back home.
While refugees being resettled in Maine have an established support system in place to help find them housing and other forms of assistance when they come to the United States, asylum seekers have not yet qualified for official refugee status. Asylum seekers simply show up and have to figure things out for themselves, often seeking refuge in the city’s homeless shelters, where they may encounter people with mental illness or who have alcohol and drug problems.
An innovative new project in the city’s Parkside neighborhood is looking to change that — at least for some asylum seekers. And organizers hope the partnership will become a model for other private citizens and faith-based organizations to follow.
Developer Richard Berman recently bought an old church at 14 Sherman St. with the goal of converting it into a privately funded, temporary home and education center for asylum seekers. The center would be run by Hope Acts, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Hope Gateway Church.
“The government is getting into this ‘right-sizing’ thing, so faith groups and private people need to step up and fill the gap,” said Berman, a Cape Elizabeth resident and well-known philanthropist.
Berman said he is spending roughly $420,000 to buy and renovate the old church, which was used more recently as affordable housing. The project is expected to be finished in mid-October and include five apartments with classrooms in the basement.
When it’s finished, Berman will lease the building to Hope Acts for five years — at no cost.
“It’s kind of an experiment,” said Berman, who hopes the project will become a new model for addressing homelessness.
Up to 12 asylum seekers will be able to stay at the “Hope House” until they can find permanent housing, according to the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, pastor of the Hope Gateway Church.
The building will be overseen by a resident assistant and maintained by the tenants. The goal is raise enough money to hire a part-time social worker for the building, Ewing-Merrill said.
In addition to housing, tenants will be able to participate in several education programs, including English language classes; tenant-landlord rights and relationships instruction; food-shopping, nutrition and cooking classes; employment coaching; and leadership development.
The tenants will also have access to legal services and other resources.
“We’re not duplicating services — we’re just trying to fill the gaps we see,” said Jennifer Dimond, president of the Hope Acts board of directors. “We’re (hoping) it will be a model for other faith communities and other private individuals.”
The number of asylum seekers has grown substantially over the last three years, according to data provided by the city’s refugee services department.
So far in 2013, 475 individuals have come to Portland seeking asylum. Already, that’s nearly 40 more asylum seekers than arrived last year and 193 more than the city saw during 2011.
“We obviously won’t be able to help everyone,” Ewing-Merrill said, noting there will be an application and screening process for tenants. Without an established system — however small — to help asylum seekers, they often rely on the city’s emergency services, including the city’s overflowing emergency shelters.
The city continues to see near record levels of people seeking emergency shelter. An average of 447 people have sought emergency shelter each night in 2013, although there are only 354 beds available at the six shelters.
An additional 75 sleeping mats are used for overflow at Preble Street and the remaining people must sit in plastic chairs in the city’s General Assistance office.
Berman approached the church about the Hope House project because the church has a track record of welcoming and helping immigrants. The Hope House model was developed with direct input of asylum-seekers like Mia, who is 44 years old.
The asylum process can take months, if not years to resolve. The demand has overwhelmed groups such as the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which provides legal services to asylum seekers.
Mia applied for asylum in 2011 and her case is still pending.
Mia expressed gratitude for being allowed to stay in the city’s shelter for two weeks, even though she was sleeping on a mat on the floor and sometimes in a hard chair. However, she found the whole shelter experience disorienting.
“It was very hard,” she said. “I am very excited with that (Hope House) project to feel like I am helping my brothers and sisters.”
Armand, a 39-year-old man from Burundi, will be one of the 12 tenants in the Hope House when it opens in October. He also fled Burundi amid threats of violence and is seeking asylum. Before leaving his home, he was a graphic designer who also worked with young adults.
He said the ruling party showed up one day and told him to tell the young adults with whom he was working to register in support of the party. When he refused, he was threatened, so he fled.
Like Mia, Armand did not want to be photographed or have his last name used for this story out of fear of reprisals against his loved ones back home. Officials said family members of Burundi asylum seekers were threatened with violence after the asylum seekers appeared in a past media report in Portland.
Ewing-Merrill said Hope Acts decided to help asylum seekers because they are the most vulnerable of those seeking shelter. Ewing-Merrill and the developer, Berman, both said they also see immigrants as a significant economic development opportunity, since Maine currently has the oldest population in the country and has trouble attracting and retaining young people.
Many asylum-seekers were professionals back home — doctors, lawyers, teachers and the like. When they come here, they want to work.
“These are people with education, ambition and experience,” Ewing-Merrill said. “The immigrants we work with are really eager to integrate.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: