September 23, 2012

Bill Nemitz: It takes a new American citizen to raise a village

(Continued from page 1)

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Maxwell Chikuta, originally from Congo, became a U.S. citizen Friday morning at a naturalization ceremony in South Portland.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Maxwell Chikuta, who volunteers as a member of the United Way speakers bureau, addresses a rally at the L.L. Bean Order Fulfillment Center in Freeport on Wednesday.

Gordon Chibroski

What happened to him?

"I don't know."

Maxwell remembers how, a few days later, two large planes with red crosses emblazoned on the sides flew in circles over the village and dropped parachutes tethered to boxes of food and medical supplies. How a short time later, relief workers arrived and continued the handouts.

Maxwell was astounded.

"These were white people from Europe and America -- and they came to help us!" he said, still marveling at the memory. "They left their families and came to help us, you know?"

With his father gone and his stepmother focused exclusively on her two children, Maxwell took to the streets for almost two years -- a 10-year-old adrift in a country that for decades would remain awash in often deadly turmoil.

He survived, thanks in large part to a maternal grandfather who eventually tracked Maxwell down and took him in. But his grandparents could only help so much -- after gaining admission to a middle school in the city, Maxwell's limited resources forced him to drop out just before eighth grade.

Still, he persevered. He started his own business -- a chain of kiosks that sold candy on the streets of Kolwezi. In 1995, he married a young woman named Sally. Soon they had two children.

But the danger remained -- fueled by chronic rebellion against longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and spillover from the prolonged civil war in neighboring Rwanda. By 2003, for reasons he is still reluctant to discuss in detail, Maxwell and Sally left their two children with relatives and fled to a faraway place called Maine.

"I had heard there were Congolese already here so I could get started," Maxwell said. "It was March or April. I remember it was cold. It was snowing. And I didn't find anyone." 

BEFORE ARRIVING in Maine, Maxwell had pictured himself basking in the American Dream "like Eddie Murphy or Chuck Norris." Instead, he and Sally found themselves shivering at the doorstep to Portland's Oxford Street Shelter.

"My wife would sleep with the women and I would sleep with the men," Maxwell recalled. "Then at 6 o'clock they wake you up, so we go to the soup kitchen for our breakfast -- they have a very good breakfast at the soup kitchen -- and after that we go wandering around town."

A week or two after their arrival, a kindly shelter worker helped the young couple secure an apartment on Grant Street in Portland.

"So the city was paying for our apartment," Maxwell said. Touching his chest, he added, "That's why, you see, I have heart for the community."

Unable to speak English, Maxwell enrolled in Portland Adult Education's English for Speakers of Other Languages class. Soon thereafter, adult education director Rob Wood nudged him toward the General Educational Development program and a high school equivalency diploma.

Maxwell earned the diploma in January of 2004. He'd been in America just nine months.

"We all knew he could do it," Wood recalled last week. "It was just this hurdle he needed to get over."

The first of many.

His English improving by the day, Maxwell landed a job washing linens at Maine Medical Center. Around the same time, encouraged by his adult education teachers, he took the entrance examination at Southern Maine Community College.

"You can put this in there," he said, pointing to my notebook. "I failed that entrance exam three times. Because of the language. But I passed the fourth time and I was accepted."

He attended class each evening after a full day's work at the hospital -- by now he'd advanced from laundry room worker to operating room orderly.

(Continued on page 3)

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