Annick Munezero, a refugee from Burundi, listens to questions from residents during a gathering Thursday at the Waterville Public Library hosted by the Waterville Area New Mainers Project. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — On the fourth floor of the Waterville Public Library, five African refugees who just a few months ago came to the United States from Burundi were surrounded by a group of people interested in helping them out – and taking a stand.

The Munezero siblings – three sisters and two brothers ranging in age from 20 to 30 – originally fled the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo when they were younger and resettled in Burundi. They are now refugees living in Fairfield, in an area of rural Maine where jobs and housing were available. Four of the five siblings work at Backyard Farms in Madison.

The meeting at the library Thursday night – the first of the Waterville Area New Mainers Project – was organized to pool resources and provide help for the Munezero family.

Colby College professor Julie de Sherbinin met the family recently and has been helping them get the things they need, but she wants the community to step up and help as well.

The goal of the first meeting, she said, was for those in the room to begin brainstorming ways they could volunteer to help the African family.

A staggering number of refugees have fled from Burundi, in sub-Saharan Africa, because of political instability, which has resulted in increased violence. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the conflict in Burundi is worsening, with more than 300,000 people fleeing to other African countries and an estimated 400 people killed since April 2015.

After the library meeting, de Sherbinin said the anti-immigration atmosphere and racist rhetoric across the U.S. has motivated some in the group to “stand up in favor of newcomers.”

“I do believe the political circumstances are driving us to want to take action,” she told the group at the inaugural meeting.

She said that anyone interested in helping the group need not have any political affiliation and “could just be a warm and welcoming community.”

The areas of need, as outlined by the group’s agenda, fall into four categories. The first involves learning English. Each sibling speaks some English, but de Sherbinin said they could benefit from having access to computers and materials that would help them improve their English.

Julie de Sherbinin, right, chats with Annick Munezero during Thursday’s gathering. De Sherbinin is working to help the Munezero siblings, and looking ahead to a time when more immigrant and refugee families come to central Maine. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The second need is transportation. The siblings – whose names are Annick, Salix, Dore, Lyse and Patience – don’t have licenses or a car. They have been relying on Catholic Charities, an organization that helps refugees and immigrants in Maine, for rides to work. But they have other transportation needs, such as getting to the grocery store or to medical appointments, which de Sherbinin said are ongoing. And their rides to and from work aren’t always the most timely.

She said the four siblings who work at Backyard Farms in Madison sometimes have to wait more than an hour before their ride home arrives.

The third need for the Munezero siblings involves social life and athletics. Living in Fairfield, the five are secluded from even the downtown Waterville area. They have their own interests. For instance, Dore likes playing soccer, while Salix likes basketball.

The fourth need involves services. At the end of March, assistance from Catholic Charities will end, but the siblings will still need to get to medical appointments. De Sherbinin was hoping to get businesses involved with one-time donations of services.

While the siblings didn’t say much during their introductions Thursday, they made it clear they were grateful for the idea behind the gathering.

“I’m happy to be here and to meet you,” Patience said to the group.

And the idea isn’t just to meet the needs of a single family just one time. Rather, de Sherbinin is looking toward the future, when more immigrant and refugee families come to central Maine.

“We’re helping them over the bridge,” she said.

The group is still organizing. For now, anyone interested in helping should contact de Sherbinin at [email protected]

Colin Ellis can be contacted at 861-9253 or at:

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