In 2010, I was forced to leave my home, where I was working as a small-business owner, out of fear of being killed for my political opinions. I came to Portland with hopes of starting over and building a new life as part of a welcoming, vibrant community.

It’s a terrible thing to live with death hanging over you, knowing that any mistake could mean the end of your life. I left Burundi and traveled legally, with a visa, to the United States to seek asylum, and I am glad that I was granted asylum in 2011.

Today, I find myself active in a different type of political struggle.

Over the last year, politicians including Gov. Paul LePage have sought political advantage by attacking men and women like me who came to the United States legally seeking asylum.

LePage and his allies have argued that we must stop providing emergency aid – General Assistance – to “undocumented” immigrants. They argue that immigrants who are here illegally should not be eligible for aid from local or state government.

General Assistance helps Maine residents pay for basic needs like rent and food. Most recently, the governor included this change to eligibility in his proposed state budget.

FEET ON THE GROUND

Throughout last year’s re-election campaign and continuing into the new legislative session, the governor has willfully confused people who are in the country legally – such as asylum seekers – with people who have come to the United States without proper documentation.

What he fails to mention is that the vast majority of those who would be affected by this proposal are people who came in the same conditions as me – people who are here lawfully seeking asylum after fleeing extreme violence in their homeland. Asylum seekers are documented. We have documents from the federal government verifying that we are here lawfully.

My own experience is similar to the experience of other asylum seekers in Maine. I did not choose to leave my home country of Burundi – I had to leave or I would have been killed.

I came here with very little but determined to build a better life. The temporary assistance I received from the city of Portland in the form of General Assistance helped me get my feet on the ground, find a place to live and find gainful employment. I am now able to work full time and give back to my community in multiple ways.

Since I came, I have been involved in community organizing, trying to help others integrate their new lives and advocating for their rights in their new home. In 2013, I was hired as the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition coordinator, and I am proud to be working with men and women from all corners of the state to advocate for immigrants’ rights and immigrant integration.

Providing temporary aid to asylum seekers is a wise investment in Maine’s future that will pay off for all of us. Asylum seekers have often lived through atrocities that cannot be put into words. We are grateful to be alive and eager to give back to the state that has provided us with sanctuary. We bring with us skills and experience that we want to put to good use.

General Assistance is temporary help that allows us to stabilize our lives in a new home, and we are grateful for it. We do not want to take advantage of anyone’s generosity, and we are eager to give back to our new community. Once we wait the required 180 days for a work permit, we are eager to work and often take on multiple jobs.

FEW PLACES LEFT TO TURN

State and local resources are limited. But instead of taking this basic help away from families working hard to start new lives here, we hope that policymakers will decide to put their energy into reforming the federal system so that asylum seekers are able to work sooner and get an asylum decision sooner. These fixes at the federal level will relieve municipal and state budgets and improve people’s lives.

Policymakers need to understand what’s really happening as they consider the governor’s proposals, and understand the consequences of their actions.

For asylum seekers, there are few places left to turn without General Assistance. This proposal will hurt hundreds of families with children. Many will lose their homes – again – and be forced to live on the streets.

These are families who are here lawfully who have already undergone severe hardship and strife. They are playing by the rules and are eager to contribute to Maine’s workforce if they are given the chance.

We should not let them fall victim to confusion and the politics of division.