PORTLAND — As an immigrant already fluent in English, Sonia Irambona arrived in Portland from Kenya a year ago with an advantage as she sought to find a place to live and begin the transition to a foreign city and culture.
Irambona is also well-versed in the challenges facing many other new arrivals who have never had to sign – let alone understand – an apartment lease, deal with apartment maintenance or operate appliances that Americans take for granted.
“So they come to me and ask for help,” said the 30-year-old native of the Republic of Burundi in southeastern Africa. “I have come to realize there are many issues and we don’t know exactly how to deal with them. Where do we go? Who do we go to?”
On Thursday afternoon, more than a dozen organizations and the City of Portland will launch an effort to bridge the linguistic, cultural and life-experience gaps between “new Mainers” and Portland-area landlords.
The forum – called “Opening Doors: Bringing Landlords and New Mainer Tenants Together” – will begin at 4:30 p.m. at King Middle School and is aimed at improving communication between the groups. Another goal is to avoid problems that have led to tensions in the past.
As part of the new initiative, Portland’s Refugee Services agency and immigrant advocate groups plan to revive monthly workshops for new arrivals about everything from keeping warm in winter to using public transportation. Irambona, meanwhile, is helping launch a new organization to work directly with landlords.
“We see this not as the end but as the start of a conversation that we hope will continue,” said Robyn Merrill, an event organizer with Maine Equal Justice Partners.
Portland is home to a growing immigrant population from countries such as Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and central African nations.
Last year, about 350 individuals were resettled in the Portland area as political refugees, which requires a years-long application process. Hundreds more arrive seeking political asylum in the United States.
The latter group is harder to track, but Portland’s general assistance program has processed 433 cases representing 783 individuals from households whose asylum requests are still pending.
Portland has gone to considerable lengths to foster a reputation as an immigrant-friendly community. But issues are inevitable given the differences between Maine and many immigrants’ native countries.
Those who rent to Portland’s immigrants are on board with the effort to improve communication.
“We are really excited that we are trying to address these issues with the new Mainer tenants who are good people and good tenants but inevitably have issues because of cultural differences,” said Brit Vitalius, principal with the Vitalius Real Estate Group as well as president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association.
Immigrants and their advocates hope to address concerns about tenants’ rights and ensuring immigrants have access to interpreters or translated copies of legal documents, among other issues.
Alain Nahimana of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition said he frequently found himself turning to Merrill at Maine Equal Justice Partners for help when immigrants came to him with problems. But Nahimana said they realized that addressing each problem individually was inefficient.
Nahimana is now working with Irambona, the immigrant from Burundi, to set up a New Mainers Tenants Association to work with the Southern Maine Landlords Association on bigger issues.
Landlords said they hope the outreach will help new arrivals better understand the obligations of rent, security deposits and leases. They also hope to address issues such as how to safely operate an electric stove or a thermostat.
Wendy Harmon, a landlord and Realtor who estimates that 40 percent to 50 percent of her tenants are immigrants, said winter heating and language differences are the two biggest issues she and her husband have experienced. But Harmon said they often know other tenants who can help bridge the language divide.
“It’s all about communication and that is what this is all about on Thursday,” Harmon said. “If you’re having these issues, come talk to us.”