September 30, 2013

Partners in hope: Assisting asylum seekers in Maine

Philanthropist Richard Berman and Hope Acts team up to aid our most vulnerable immigrants.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – In 2010, Mia left her four children and husband behind in Burundi to seek political asylum in the United States.

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Betty Hartley, English conversation group instructor with Hope Acts in Portland, uses ice cubes to communicate the meaning of the word “ice” to students from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi on Thursday.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Her work as a clinical and social psychiatrist helping women who had been raped was not appreciated by the government in the African nation, and she was forced to flee amid threats of violence, she said.

Mia arrived in Portland and ended up in the city's homeless shelter.

"When I came here I didn't know anybody so I didn't know where to go," said Mia, who asked not to be photographed and that her last name be withheld because she feared political reprisals against her family back home.

While refugees being resettled in Maine have an established support system in place to help find them housing and other forms of assistance when they come to the United States, asylum seekers have not yet qualified for official refugee status. Asylum seekers simply show up and have to figure things out for themselves, often seeking refuge in the city's homeless shelters, where they may encounter people with mental illness or who have alcohol and drug problems.

An innovative new project in the city's Parkside neighborhood is looking to change that -- at least for some asylum seekers. And organizers hope the partnership will become a model for other private citizens and faith-based organizations to follow.

Developer Richard Berman recently bought an old church at 14 Sherman St. with the goal of converting it into a privately funded, temporary home and education center for asylum seekers. The center would be run by Hope Acts, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Hope Gateway Church.

"The government is getting into this 'right-sizing' thing, so faith groups and private people need to step up and fill the gap," said Berman, a Cape Elizabeth resident and well-known philanthropist.

Berman said he is spending roughly $420,000 to buy and renovate the old church, which was used more recently as affordable housing. The project is expected to be finished in mid-October and include five apartments with classrooms in the basement.

When it's finished, Berman will lease the building to Hope Acts for five years -- at no cost.

"It's kind of an experiment," said Berman, who hopes the project will become a new model for addressing homelessness.

Up to 12 asylum seekers will be able to stay at the "Hope House" until they can find permanent housing, according to the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, pastor of the Hope Gateway Church.

The building will be overseen by a resident assistant and maintained by the tenants. The goal is raise enough money to hire a part-time social worker for the building, Ewing-Merrill said.

In addition to housing, tenants will be able to participate in several education programs, including English language classes; tenant-landlord rights and relationships instruction; food-shopping, nutrition and cooking classes; employment coaching; and leadership development.

The tenants will also have access to legal services and other resources.

"We're not duplicating services -- we're just trying to fill the gaps we see," said Jennifer Dimond, president of the Hope Acts board of directors. "We're (hoping) it will be a model for other faith communities and other private individuals."

The number of asylum seekers has grown substantially over the last three years, according to data provided by the city's refugee services department.

So far in 2013, 475 individuals have come to Portland seeking asylum. Already, that's nearly 40 more asylum seekers than arrived last year and 193 more than the city saw during 2011.

"We obviously won't be able to help everyone," Ewing-Merrill said, noting there will be an application and screening process for tenants. Without an established system -- however small -- to help asylum seekers, they often rely on the city's emergency services, including the city's overflowing emergency shelters.

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