Cape Elizabeth resident Scott Lewis serves food to individuals staying at the Portland Expo on June 19. The building is serving as an emergency shelter for asylum-seekers who came to the city earlier this month. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — As a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, Cape Elizabeth resident Scott Lewis said he was warmly welcomed.

Now, decades later, he is looking to return the favor for the more than 220 asylum-seekers who came to Portland from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola earlier this month.

“I lived in Africa for 10 years and enjoyed a lot of hospitality there, and these people need my help,” Lewis said as he served food June 19 at the Portland Expo, the emergency shelter that was set up two weeks ago to house and feed these individuals until more a more permanent solution can be found.

Individuals line up for lunch at the Portland Expo June 19. Thanks to volunteers from Amistad, the menu featured traditional food from Africa. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

City Manager Jon Jennings said the city is looking to phase individuals out of the Expo and has asked neighboring communities to help in the search for permanent housing.

Lewis’ desire to volunteer stemmed from his time in the Peace Corps in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) in the late 1970s, and Senegal in the mid-1980s.

“Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to come back and help Americans understand the perspective of people in other countries,” said Lewis, a member of the Maine Peace Corps Association. “Now that we have these individuals from central Africa arriving in Maine, we need to step in to help them.”

Jourdan Simon, kitchen manager for the Portland-based  peer support and recovery center Amistad, and a team of six volunteers (all of Angolan or Congolese heritage) were at the Expo offering a little bit of local cuisine to those temporarily residing in the building.

The group was serving pondu, a dish of cassava leaves and vegetables with rice and stewed meat. The dish is common, she said, in Angloan and Congolese households.

“When I proposed we could do this, they were so enthusiastic,” Simon said of her volunteers. “They put in so much extra time and effort in this.”

Simon said she was personally inspired to offer her help, seeing it as an extension of the work her organization does.

“It comes from a place of compassion,” she said. “At Amistad, we see everyone as a human and we try to help however we see the community needs help.”

Those staying at the Expo were not only treated to locally inspired cuisine June 19, they also were entertained by African music.

A group of young children listen to Pihcintu, a multicultural children’s chorus performed during lunch at the Expo last week. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

During the lunch hour, Pihcintu, a multicultural children’s chorus, performed. The group performs throughout Maine, but in recent years has sung in such places as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and at the United Nations in New York City, as well as on NBC’s “Today” show.

Pihcintu was formed in 2005 by Con Fullam, a noted Maine musician and television producer.

As volunteers like Lewis and Simon continue to offer assistance at the Expo, city officials are preparing a transition plan.

“The city has come to the conclusion that the best course of action at this time is to focus on finding and providing more long-term housing solutions,’ Jennings, the city manager, said in a statement. “We believe that avoiding short-term housing options would be less disruptive and easier on these families who have already endured so much.”

The Greater Portland Council of Governments’ Metro Regional Coalition met in an emergency session to discuss a regional response to finding where that housing stock might be.

Bill Donovan, a Scarborough town councilor who chairs the coalition, said Jennings asked GPCOG members to reach out to landlords, developers and “whoever might have space that would be suitable.” Each Metro Regional Coalition member, Donovan said, was also asked to go back to their respective communities “to see what else can be done.”

A follow-up meeting for the Metro Regional Coalition has not been set, Donovan said.

“That was left open,” he said, “so we can deal with the situation as it develops.”

Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter:@mkelleynews

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