For four years, Dr. Godefroy Watchiba was an infectious disease specialist in a corner of the globe wracked by HIV/AIDS, bringing life-saving drugs and medical care to people throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo.

By February 2010, however, threats against him over his refusal to provide information about certain patients prompted him to obtain a temporary visa to visit an acquaintance in the U.S. He hoped that the tensions would ease during his absence, but they didn’t. “The problem got bigger and bigger” and, with his family increasingly fearful for his safety, Watchiba said he decided to remain in the U.S. and file for asylum.

Not allowed to work because of his status as a new asylum applicant, the trained physician spent weeks sleeping in a Portland homeless shelter and eating meals at a city soup kitchen.

“It was hard,” Watchiba said. “It was an experience, but I took it as a positive experience.”

Watchiba used General Assistance – the city-administered program that provides vouchers to cover basic needs – to help pay for an apartment as he began the asylum application process. “Without General Assistance, I could have done nothing,” he said.

After the waiting period ended and he received a work permit, Watchiba got his first job in L.L. Bean’s packaging department during the holidays. He was granted asylum in 2012 and successfully petitioned the U.S. government to allow his family to join him in Maine.

Now, more than four years after arriving in the U.S., he is slowly rebuilding his medical career, first by training to become an ultrasound technician to pay the bills as he prepares to take the American medical board exams.

“It’s hard, but you have to do it,” Watchiba said of the transition to a new home.

Eddy Kadima was already painfully aware of the brutality facing inmates of Angola’s secret prisons before he was shackled and tortured inside one.Kadima said his wife had been imprisoned, beaten and raped after being caught up in what he describes as an indiscriminate dragnet of local business owners following a terrorist attack by Angolan separatists. A successful entrepreneur, Kadima said he was fortunate enough to be able to afford the bribes necessary to secure his wife’s release.

The couple returned home, thinking that the situation was behind them. But trouble followed and, after people came searching for her last year, his wife used a previously acquired visa to travel to the U.S. with several of their children.

Soon thereafter, “her situation became my situation,” Kadima said. He was arrested and subjected to many of the same physical and psychological abuses. After once again finding the right people to bribe, Kadima got out of prison and used a still-valid visa to join his family in Maine four months ago. He has applied for asylum.

He was forced to leave behind an 8-year-old son now living with relatives elsewhere in Africa. His family’s house in Angola was burned and his entire importing business is now gone, Kadima said. “From having everything I wanted from working hard . . . I lost everything in a few months. I lost absolutely everything,” Kadima said.

Since arriving in Maine, Kadima took adult education courses and was able to quickly receive his GED and start a college transition program. He already has a college degree in project management in Africa as well as several professional training certificates, he said.

But Kadima has not been in Maine long enough to apply for a work permit, so his family relies on General Assistance. “I would be on the street without General Assistance,” Kadima said.

“If I would have stayed . . . the Angolan police could have come at any time to kill me,” Anna Pemba said. “Going to the U.S. was the only way to save my life, even though it meant leaving my three boys behind . . . and I miss them terribly.”

A gospel singer who goes by the stage name Baby Pemba, she said her troubles began soon after she released a song entitled “Africa” that denounced the abuse of women and children. Also, while Pemba had performed for Angola’s ruling political party, government officials targeted her after she also sang at a gathering of its primary rival party, she said.

Her home was stormed by paramilitary police who shot and killed one cousin and wounded another, she said.

Warned by family not to return home and fearful for her safety in a neighboring country, Pemba said she took advantage of a U.S. visa that she had previously received to work on her latest CD. But that meant leaving her three sons – ages 4, 8 and 17 – in the care of relatives. They did not have visas.

Asked about bringing her three remaining children to the U.S., Anna tearfully replied: “I don’t know how.”

Pemba gave birth to a fourth boy, named Joshua, soon after arriving in the U.S. After initially living in North Carolina, Pemba said she made her way to Lewiston, in part because Maine provides welfare assistance based entirely on need, regardless of an applicant’s immigration status.

Unable to work because of a federally mandated waiting period, Pemba volunteers at local support programs and sings in a local church choir.

“I am awaiting for asylum so that I can become an active member of this society and offer my talents to this community,” Pemba, speaking through an interpreter, told members of the Lewiston City Council earlier this summer.

Ayman Musa had become accustomed to hearing gunshots in his native Darfur, a region of Sudan that has seen decades of war and mass killings.“We would say, ‘Oh, someone has been killed,’” the 22-year-old says, matter of factly.

Musa’s father helped him get a temporary visitor’s visa to come to the United States, he said. “I can’t … go back. Now I feel safe.”

Musa first lived in Richmond, Virginia, but he said he found little support there, either from other immigrants or from the government. His visa does not allow him to work. A man from Rwanda advised Musa to go to Maine because he would get help, he said. He took a bus north last spring with just the clothes he was wearing.

“When I come here, I was sleeping on the street. I don’t know where the shelter is,” he said. “It was too cold.”

He found a woman from Iraq who spoke Arabic and asked her where to go for help. “She gave me a ride” to the Oxford Street shelter, he said.

He slept for 22 nights at the shelter, eating at the soup kitchen. He eventually received General Assistance, which is paying the rent for his room at the YMCA and paying for food and other basic necessities.

He volunteers at the Y on weekends, and studies English during the week or watches his three younger brothers, who recently arrived in Portland with his father.

Musa plans to apply for asylum before his visa expires in January, but is on a waiting list to get legal help with the application. He said he looks forward to studying and working and not needing assistance. He carries a help-wanted page from the newspaper in his backpack and studies it even though he is not yet allowed to apply for any of the jobs.

He said he is no longer afraid that he will not have food to eat or that the violence in Darfur will find him, although the sense of fear is still there when he hears fireworks or police sirens. He is quickly getting used to all the little new things, such as cooking on an electric stove instead of a charcoal one.

And, despite the sometimes difficult journey, Musa is full of optimism and always smiling.

“I feel here safety,” he said. “I love Americans. They help in Africa. They help here. They just help.”

Rehma “Becky” Juma, 19, arrived in Portland by herself on a student visa in September 2013 knowing just one person, a fellow Burundian who navigated the asylum process himself and now helps others do the same.An incoming senior at Portland High School, Juma lives in the Hope House apartment building run by Portland’s HopeGateWay United Methodist Church. The program caters to up to 13 asylum applicants.

“So even though I am not with my family, I have them as a new family,” she said.

Citing concerns of retaliation against herself or family, Juma declined to elaborate on why she left Burundi except to say it involved “political issues.” She did not want to be photographed.

“It was a difficult decision because I had to leave my family,” Juma said, seated in a living room she shares with other women seeking asylum. “I didn’t have a choice. It was an obligation to leave for safety.”

Juma arrived in Maine with a student visa that expired in August. She recently submitted her application for asylum, but is still within the 150-day waiting period to apply for a work permit.

Juma is one of two asylum seekers living in Maine to join a lawsuit by Portland, Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association challenging the LePage administration’s prohibitions on state-funded General Assistance for undocumented immigrants.

The assistance helps Juma afford her housing, food, medicine and other necessities. Losing General Assistance, Juma speculates, could force her to drop out of high school in order to find other ways to support herself while her asylum application is pending.

“If I lost General Assistance, I would lose everything,” Juma said.

— Kevin Miller and John Richardson

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