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

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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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For more information on the Hope House or to make a donation, log onto, or call 899-2435.

The city continues to see near record levels of people seeking emergency shelter. An average of 447 people have sought emergency shelter each night in 2013, although there are only 354 beds available at the six shelters.

An additional 75 sleeping mats are used for overflow at Preble Street and the remaining people must sit in plastic chairs in the city's General Assistance office.

Berman approached the church about the Hope House project because the church has a track record of welcoming and helping immigrants. The Hope House model was developed with direct input of asylum-seekers like Mia, who is 44 years old.

The asylum process can take months, if not years to resolve. The demand has overwhelmed groups such as the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which provides legal services to asylum seekers.

Mia applied for asylum in 2011 and her case is still pending.

Mia expressed gratitude for being allowed to stay in the city's shelter for two weeks, even though she was sleeping on a mat on the floor and sometimes in a hard chair. However, she found the whole shelter experience disorienting.

"It was very hard," she said. "I am very excited with that (Hope House) project to feel like I am helping my brothers and sisters."

Armand, a 39-year-old man from Burundi, will be one of the 12 tenants in the Hope House when it opens in October. He also fled Burundi amid threats of violence and is seeking asylum. Before leaving his home, he was a graphic designer who also worked with young adults.

He said the ruling party showed up one day and told him to tell the young adults with whom he was working to register in support of the party. When he refused, he was threatened, so he fled.

Like Mia, Armand did not want to be photographed or have his last name used for this story out of fear of reprisals against his loved ones back home. Officials said family members of Burundi asylum seekers were threatened with violence after the asylum seekers appeared in a past media report in Portland.

Ewing-Merrill said Hope Acts decided to help asylum seekers because they are the most vulnerable of those seeking shelter. Ewing-Merrill and the developer, Berman, both said they also see immigrants as a significant economic development opportunity, since Maine currently has the oldest population in the country and has trouble attracting and retaining young people.

Many asylum-seekers were professionals back home -- doctors, lawyers, teachers and the like. When they come here, they want to work.

"These are people with education, ambition and experience," Ewing-Merrill said. "The immigrants we work with are really eager to integrate."

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

Twitter: @randybillings


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