December 3, 2012

Immigrants face cold reality of Maine winter

Portland helps newcomers from Africa learn about Maine winters, from cold-weather clothes, to furnaces, steam radiators and oil bills

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

Isaac Ishimwe, 23, glanced out his window last week and saw something he had never seen before -- white stuff falling from the sky.

click image to enlarge

Fredence, a recent immigrant from Burundi, bundles up in blankets and uses heat from her oven to try to keep warm in her Portland apartment.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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With the help of interpreter Damas Rugaba, right, immigrants from Rwanda, from left, Aristide Subikino, Isaac Ishimwe and Jean Bosco talk cold-weather issues, including communicating with the manager of their High Street apartments in Portland about heat.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

He ran outside and let the flakes tumble into his hand. He had expected it to feel more like hail, which falls on rare occasions during thunderstorms in his native Rwanda.

"I thought it would be hard," he said, recounting his astonishment. "But I touched it, and it melted."

Besides learning a new language and culture, immigrants from Africa like Ishimwe face another difficult adjustment here: Maine winters.

But it's not just the novelty of falling snow and frozen puddles. Furnaces, steam radiators and heating oil bills can be just as bewildering.

On occasion, misunderstandings about heating systems and cultural and language barriers can create conflicts with landlords, city officials say.

To prepare newly arrived immigrants for winter, the Portland's Social Services division offers monthly "winter workshops," with lessons on how to dress properly, what to do in cases of frostbite, how heating systems work and the cost of heating fuels. The classes are held at the city's Refugee Services Program at 190 Lancaster St. The next class is on Dec. 28.

A big issue is heat. City officials want to educate immigrants about heating systems to reduce conflicts between immigrants and landlords, said Regina Phillips, director of the Refugee Services Program.

Many of the area's new immigrants from Africa need higher temperatures to feel warm, or they must wear more clothing, said Jeff Tardif, who runs the city's Family Shelter, a facility on Chestnut Street with a capacity of 94 people.

He recently visited a family from Burundi who had just arrived in Maine and were living in a motel room. The family was lying in bed and wearing hats, gloves and jackets.

They had never seen a thermostat before and didn't know how to operate it.

The room was about 70 degrees, and the outside temperature was in the 40s, he said.

"I thought to myself, 'It's not cold yet. Wait until it gets really cold,'" Tardif said.

At the class, immigrants learn about wearing extra clothing rather than turning the thermostat up or using a gas stove for heat, which is dangerous, said Efrem Wel, 74, who works on the city's Refugee Services staff and has taught the course.

Immigrants also learn to close their windows and doors or they'll upset their landlords, he said.

Many of the area's newly arrived immigrants from central Africa are seeking asylum and don't have the legal right to work while their cases are being processed. They receive rental vouchers for the city-managed general assistance program.

The city inspects all the apartments and handles issues raised by both tenants and landlords.

Maine law requires that landlords who supply heat with the rent maintain a heating system capable of heating an apartment to 68 degrees.

But 68 degrees can feel cold for people who have recently arrived from Africa.

Some say they feel warm only when it's above 80 degrees, Tardif said.

Several tenants at an 11-unit apartment building on High Street last week, for example, complained that their apartments were too cold, and worried how to handle heating once really cold weather arrived.

Some were already heating their apartments by using gas stoves or portable heaters.

The building's steam radiators seemed to operate strangely, becoming hot for short periods but remaining cold for much of the day, tenants said.

"I am afraid, (the landlord) doesn't provide heat all day long," said one tenant, a recent immigrant from Burundi, who would only give her first name, Fredence.

(Continued on page 2)

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