Claudine Mukarurangwa did not tell anyone she was leaving her home in Rwanda. Not her friends or her contacts in business. Not even her adult sons, who are in college in Canada.

“You take a small bag, and you go,” she said.

Mukarurangwa had been jailed for her ties to a government critic. When she was released, she abandoned the retail shop and two houses she had in the capital city of Kigali. She used a visa that had previously allowed her to travel to the United States on business and arrived in New York City in March. She made her way to Portland to stay with a friend and apply for asylum.

Nine months later, Mukarurangwa has made a new beginning in a new home. She is taking English classes and attending church services. And, although she is still waiting for a permit to begin working, she has moved into her own home, a one-bedroom apartment in Westbrook that she rented with the support of a creative new loan program to help asylum seekers.

One of the first things she did in her apartment was call one of her sons and give him a tour over the phone.

“He was so happy,” she said. “I showed him on video.”


Immigrants who come to the United States to escape danger or persecution in their homelands often arrive with few resources after leaving homes and careers behind. They also are not allowed to work in the United States for at least six months. That combination of factors has filled Portland’s homeless shelters and forced many newcomers to crowd into friends’ homes.

Claudine Mukarurangwa left her entire life behind in Rwanda to seek asylum in the United States.

Maine’s General Assistance program can help people who are destitute keep up with their rent so they don’t become homeless, but it typically does not cover security deposits that are often the barrier to finding housing in the first place.

ProsperityME and Infinity Federal Credit Union launched a program in January that offers zero-interest loans to asylum seekers who need security deposits to get homes of their own. The beneficiaries have 10 months, or until they receive their work authorization, to start repaying the loan. The dollar amount is capped at $1,500, and the average loan is $1,000.

“We had a demand out there of people who come here as new Mainers and don’t really have a way to get their security deposit,” said Joanna Caouette, the program representative from ProsperityME, a Portland-based nonprofit that provides financial support and counseling to new immigrants in Maine. “They would just go door to door, usually church to church, to try to gather that money.”

Caouette said she remembers doing that herself when she came to Maine from Burundi.

Asylum seekers have to wait 150 days to apply for a work permit in the United States, so they cannot get jobs immediately. Caouette said many people who applied for the program this year were living in homeless shelters or only had a limited amount of time they could stay at a friend’s house. In its first year, she said the program has accepted 27 applicants – some individuals and some families.


“We have people who are in a situation where it’s an emergency, and they need to get a house right away,” she said.

Caouette said applicants have so far learned about the loans through word of mouth.

“It is hard for people to come here and be vulnerable,” Caouette said.

That was true for Mukarurangwa.

Her siblings and relatives died in the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s. She separated from her first husband when the boys were toddlers. She wed again in 2010, but her second husband died within a year.

“I continue my life alone,” she said.


Mukarurangwa had a successful retail business in Rwanda and was used to an independent life in her home country.

But she said she supported Diane Rwigara, a human rights activist who tried to run for president in Rwanda last year. Rwigara was accused of falsifying signatures and disqualified from the election, and soon she and her mother were arrested on charges of fraud and inciting insurrection.

Both women were acquitted this year, a verdict welcomed by groups like Amnesty International. Mukarurangwa said she herself spent two weeks in jail in early 2018 for backing Rwigara. Afraid of further political persecution, that experience caused her to flee the country.

Mukarurangwa called her sons, now 18 and 21, after she arrived in the United States and told them what she had done. During those first months in America while sharing her friend’s home, she struggled to find quiet and private spaces to talk to them.

Now in her own apartment, she talks to her sons by phone every day, often making video calls. But she does not know when she will see them in person again, and she does not let them see her cry when she thinks about their separation.

“That’s up to God to help us meet again,” she said. “I have to show them to be strong.”


With the help of the loan, Mukarurangwa moved into her one-bedroom apartment in Westbrook over the summer. Her loan for the security deposit was $825 – equal to one month’s rent.

The loan also will help Mukarurangwa start building credit in the United States, crucial to a businesswoman. She recently applied for her work permit and is waiting for paperwork to be processed. She is thinking about eventually starting her own daycare or becoming a home health aide.

In her shop in Rwanda, she was used to being on her feet, and she doesn’t want to sit at a desk all day. While she waits for authorization to work, Mukarurangwa takes English classes and attends services at a nearby Christian church.

Her apartment is small and sparse with mostly donated furniture. But there are a few personal touches – a small green sign on the wall that reads “Give Thanks to God” in curly letters, a poinsettia display for Christmas.

“I’m not scared,” she said of her life in Maine. “I’m free.”

Megan Gray can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

Twitter: mainemegan

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