ThatMomentBibiche Bekoka held the right side of her back and winced as she slowly lowered into a foldout camping chair in her living room.

For the past two months, she had been sleeping on an air mattress with her 15-year-old daughter, Gabriella, and 3-year-old son, Prince. Her two middle children, 8-year-old Angelina and 10-year-old Allegra, had been sharing the bottom of a set of bunk beds because there was no mattress on top.

The girls didn’t mind as much, because they could stay up talking about their favorite band, One Direction, and what they miss about South Africa.

“It’s kind of fun,” Allegra said.

But when Bekoka woke up Monday, it hurt to walk.

Relief, however, was coming. Furniture Friends, an organization that collects and delivers donated furniture in the Portland area, was scheduled to bring a shipment the next day to their apartment on outer Congress Street.


Since they had moved there in April, the children had been fighting over the two blue camping chairs that came from a pastor at their church and a Prince-sized, orange plastic one from Goodwill. Allegra and Angelina usually ate dinner on their bed or the floor.

Still, it was better than being at the family shelter, even though they each had their own beds there, Bekoka said.

“Everyone is using the bathroom. We are sharing the pots. We are sharing the plates. You are sharing everything,” she said in a thick accent that her children don’t have.

Bekoka and her family fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo for South Africa 12 years ago for their safety – the same reason they came to Maine in January, though, this time, her husband didn’t join them.

The pizza is better in South Africa, Angelina said, but otherwise she’s happy here. She’s already friends with half of her class, she said. Her oldest sister, Gabriella, is playing high school softball, and Allegra likes the snow.

When the girls are at school, Prince and their mother are mostly at home, if not at doctor’s appointments or the grocery store. Bekoka can’t save for a car until she gets a job, and she still has to wait a few more months before she can apply for a work permit. She hopes to find a job in information technology, which she studied in South Africa. Until that happens, she plans to volunteer.


But her first priority, after applying for asylum and getting medical check-ups, was to have furniture in their home.

“It’s difficult. We almost don’t have the family meal,” she said of not having a table to gather around.

She asked a young man she’d met at her new church, First Assembly of God, to come help with the delivery. Tutuma Alberto arrived in Maine a month ago from Mozambique. When he and Bekoka realized they both spoke French, they started talking.

Soon after he got to her apartment Tuesday morning, it became clear his help wouldn’t be needed. As a moving truck pulled into the driveway, a school bus with 10 volunteers parked out front.

From the time the first mattress came through the door, Bekoka’s mouth spread into a smile that didn’t go away. She occasionally broke into laughter as the stream of furniture flowed through the apartment. There were box springs, bureaus, tables and chairs. Between directing the volunteers, she clasped her hands to her chest watching the bare rooms become a home, where her family could eat together and sleep apart.

Only two wooden chairs came with the dining room table but they could use the foldout ones around it, too, now that the living room had a full-sized couch and an upholstered chair.


In the master bedroom, suitcases that overflowed with whole wardrobes were pushed aside to make room for the dressers where the clothes could finally be put away.

Bekoka folded up the deflated air mattress that never stayed blown up all the way, and in came a double bed that she’d have all to herself.

Prince bounced around among the volunteers setting up the frame. Then, in minutes, they were gone and the apartment was quiet again.

Bekoka went to sit down on her new couch, worn but undamaged, with room for three. She sank into the middle cushion and leaned back, letting her head fall over the top. Still smiling, she let out a sigh.

“It feels good,” she said.

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