January 30, 2013

Growth of Portland's refugee community attributed to 'welcoming' city

Federal officials visit Portland to get feedback from refugees and the agencies that serve them.

PORTLAND – Portland is doing a good job of providing services to its refugee community, said two high-ranking federal officials who visited the city Tuesday.

click image to enlarge

Eskinder Negash, right, the director of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement addresses a meeting at the Portland Public Library. He was accompanied by Larry Bartlett, another federal refugee official.

Carl D. Walsh / Staff Photographer

Eskinder Negash and Larry Bartlett met with about 40 refugees and representatives of service agencies at the Portland Public Library.

It was Negash's first visit to Maine. He is U.S. director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Negash said he came to Portland to make sure refugees are receiving appropriate services and to gather information from the agencies that serve them.

"This city has been a very welcoming community for many years," Negash told reporters before Tuesday night's meeting.

Negash said Portland is doing a good job, pointing out that Mayor Michael Brennan "is very engaged" with helping refugees.

The meeting focused on the challenges faced by refugees and agencies, from finding employment and receiving health care services to obtaining federal funding to support refugee resettlement programs.

Federal officials said the largest percentage of refugees coming to the U.S. now are from Myanmar, Somalia, Congo and Bhutan, a small country between India and China.

Robert Wood, director of Portland Adult Education, asked if the federal government could provide more money for programs like the one he operates.

Of the 1,200 English language learners now enrolled in Portland Adult Education, about 700 are refugees, Wood said.

He said he now receives about $8,000 a year in federal assistance, compared with $32,000 a few years ago.

Negash acknowledged that financial resources are limited.

Bartlett is director of the Office of Refugee Admission for the State Department.

Bartlett said his office helped 58,000 refugees settle in the U.S. last year.

That number is expected to increase to about 70,000 this year. Bartlett said Maine has long been regarded as a welcoming community.

"I think Maine has a very long tradition of helping refugees resettle. Maine is doing its share," Bartlett said.

Grace Valenzuela, director of Portland public schools' Multilingual and Multicultural Center, said the school department's new-student registration numbers have steadily increased as more and more refugee families have heard that Portland is a good place to raise a family.

This month, Portland schools registered 40 new students from households where English is not the primary spoken language.

In January 2011, the department registered 25 new students from foreign-speaking households.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com

 

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