Wednesday, March 12, 2014
By Tom Bell firstname.lastname@example.org
PORTLAND — Just over two years ago, Alain Jean Claude Nahimana, 41, was a wealthy and influential man in Burundi, a tiny nation in central Africa. The son of one of the country's former ambassadors to Switzerland, he owned a public relations firm and had been a leader in the ruling political party.
Saada Hassan came to Portland from Djibouti to protect her daughters.
John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
“It took me many months to feel I am not in Burundi but in the United States and that I am safe,” says Alain Jean Claude Nahimana.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer
Immigrants guided through
asylum process by attorneys
This month, an official from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is traveling to South Portland to interview 40 asylum-seekers, the second round of interviews in South Portland since January. The interview is a critical step in the process of granting asylum.
Applicants must show verifiable "well-founded fear" of persecution in their home country based on several grounds, such as race, religion, nationality or political beliefs.
Recently, courts have also created a new ground for persecution based on sex and the treatment of women in foreign countries, including the practice of female genital mutilation.
If an application is denied, the case may be referred to a federal immigration court. The whole process can take a couple of years.
In 2008, the Portland-based Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project placed 22 asylum cases with local attorneys who volunteer to help people through the legal process of immigration.
Through the first two months of this year, the group had placed 12 asylum cases, a pace that will make this year a record high, said Hayden Anderson, the group's interim executive director.
Volunteer lawyers who take on these cases will often work more than 100 hours on each case.
"It's an incredibly generous thing to do, and can be the difference between life and death for the client," he said.
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Political and ethnic conflicts, however, drove him out of the party. After setting up a website critical of government corruption, he was arrested, beaten and tortured, he says. After his release, he went into hiding.
In February 2010, he fled to America and applied for asylum. Still, for many months afterward, even the noise of diesel engines at night would frighten him. The engines sounded like the Toyota pickup trucks that carried the police who arrested him.
"It took me many months to feel I am not in Burundi but in the United States and that I am safe," he said.
Nahimana belongs to a new wave of immigrants – people from central Africa seeking asylum because they fear for their lives in their native countries. It is the fastest-growing immigrant group in Portland.
They come primarily from three counties: Burundi, Rwanda and the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all former colonies of Belgium.
In addition, there's a small population of asylum-seekers from Djibouti, a former French colony located on Africa's northeastern coast. Most of those from Djibouti who immigrated to Maine have settled in Lewiston.
No one knows how many of these new immigrants live in Portland. Some leaders in the community say there are nearly 1,000, and city officials who help immigrants say that estimate could be accurate.
Refugees from Somalia – who were first resettled in Portland in the 1990s after the Somali Civil War – remain by far the largest group of African immigrants in the city, at about 5,000. Immigrants from Sudan, who came in the next wave, are the second largest, at roughly 3,000.
Immigrants from central Africa began arriving in Portland in significant numbers two years ago.
Some, such as Nahimana, say the General Assistance Program is among the main reasons they have moved to Portland. Others say they came here because they know friends or relatives who are here, and they are told the city is a safe place for their families.
In fiscal 2009, only a handful of asylum-seekers applied for General Assistance, a program funded by both the state and the city to help the indigent. In the first eight months of fiscal 2012, the city had 178 cases of asylum-seekers, representing 269 people.
NEW IMMIGRANT WAVE IS DIFFERENT
Unlike Somalis and Sudanese, who lived in refugee camps abroad for years before being resettled in the United States as part of a federal program, these new immigrants are coming here on their own.
That means they have the money and social status to obtain a visa and travel to America. For example, they might get a visa to attend an academic conference.
Many are well-educated and had worked as professionals or had owned businesses. Still, while they may be affluent in Africa, their incomes are meager compared to those of Americans, and they quickly use up their savings after arriving here.
Unlike refugees, they don't get much support once they are here.
They do not qualify for any federally funded assistance programs, such as welfare, food stamps or Section 8 housing vouchers. A year ago, Gov. Paul LePage removed their eligibility from MaineCare. They can only be eligible after being granted asylum.
Immigrants seeking asylum can't work immediately. They must wait 150 days before receiving an employment authorization card.
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Alain Jean Claude Nahimana