CAPE ELIZABETH — More than 150 asylum seekers newly arrived in Maine experienced their first American Independence Day on Thursday during a sunny, seaside picnic that drew throngs of volunteers and well-wishers.

What began as a Facebook post just a week ago grew into a massive picnic at Fort Williams Park featuring tables of donated food, soccer, face-painting, kite-flying and some relaxed outdoor time for dozens of families temporarily sheltering at the Portland Expo.

In the sharpest of contrasts to recent images from the southern border, mothers with small American flags tucked into their hair or bags watched as their excited young children – unhindered by any language barriers – chased massive bubbles or tried to fly kites on the grassy fields overlooking Portland Head Light.

Among them was Wewe Manta, who had fled desperate and dire conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her two young daughters. She arrived in Portland two weeks ago – part of a wave of asylum seekers from the Congo and Angola – and has been living at the Portland Expo.

Manta called the picnic “a beautiful and wonderful gesture.”

“They are very welcoming,” Manta said, speaking through a translator. “Everybody is very friendly and we feel welcome in the city.”

More than 200 asylum seekers are currently staying at the Portland Expo, which the city established as a temporary emergency shelter several weeks ago when a surge of non-citizens began arriving in the city by bus.

Volunteer Jim Alberty blows bubbles with a young guest at Thursday’s Fourth of July picnic in Cape Elizabeth for asylum seekers. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Most of the asylum seekers traveled for months, leaving their native Africa for Central America and then making the long journey through Mexico to the southern U.S. border. Many then asked for asylum in Texas and were cleared to travel to Portland – which already has a small but growing population of Congolese and Angolan immigrants – while they navigate the months- or years-long asylum process.

Many of those seeking asylum in Portland were fleeing violence, persecution and political instability, some arriving with the physical and emotional scars of torture and civil war in their home countries.

Another couple from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who declined to give their full names, said they were “just happy to be here” after arriving in Portland with their three children 10 days ago.

The recent surge of asylum seekers – on top of an already steady flow in recent years – has strained the city’s resources as it struggles to house, feed and care for hundreds of people who arrive with almost nothing. The surge has also sparked an at-times heated political debate over immigration, welfare and city officials’ insistence that Portland will remain a “welcoming” city despite perceived anti-immigration rhetoric coming from Washington, D.C.

But Mainers have responded with considerable generosity to the new arrivals, donating well over $500,000 to a special Community Support Fund that provides welfare benefits to those in need. Hundreds of people also have volunteered to help the asylum-seeker population at the Expo or in the community.

Thursday’s Fourth of July picnic at Fort Williams Park was a spontaneous outgrowth of those volunteer efforts.

Anne Gregory of Yarmouth applauds and cheers with other volunteers as asylum seekers arrive for Thursday’s picnic at Fort Williams Park. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Organizer Amy Regan Gallant of South Portland said she wanted to do something special to “welcome our new neighbors” on their first Independence Day in the United States. Within days of posting the suggestion on Facebook, Gallant had received more than $1,000 in donations plus more than $1,000 of in-kind donations in the form of waived or significantly reduced rates for things such as ice cream, park fees and charter bus service to and from the Expo.

By Thursday, cash donations had hit about $2,200 and more than 100 people were volunteering at the picnic.

“I just put it out to the universe and it took off from there,” said Gallant, an advocate and lobbyist in Augusta who is currently on maternity leave.

Thursday’s lively and food-filled picnic for asylum seekers in Maine comes at a time when the country is roiled in a political debate over immigration and the federal government’s obligations to care for those immigrants.

New reports emerge seemingly daily about overcrowded, unsanitary and some would say inhumane conditions at the facilities near the southern border where migrants – including many women and children – are being held. In fact, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s own Inspector General’s Office said in a report released this week that those conditions were creating “a ticking time bomb” at the facilities.

Retired Spanish professor Lynn McGovern of South Portland said she was so disturbed by the reports from the southern border that “I don’t even recognize this country any more.”

McGovern, who also teaches English to asylum seekers in Portland, stationed herself near the entrance to Fort Williams Park along with several others who had handmade “Welcome” signs to greet the buses carrying asylum seekers. Although “a tiny drop” in the overall scheme of things, McGovern said she wanted to do something to help people seeking refuge in Maine from violence and turmoil elsewhere.

Lily Powers, 13, of Bath makes a poster with various translations of “welcome” for Thursday’s picnic for asylum seekers at Fort Williams Park. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

“I feel that I had to do something locally to make a difference globally,” McGovern said.

But an exchange between members of the ad hoc welcome committee and a driver illustrated that Mainers are still divided over immigration and asylum seekers.

As a woman was driving out of the park, she slowed her SUV to ask whom the group was welcoming. When they informed her about the buses bringing asylum seekers, the woman replied, “You mean the illegals.”

McGovern and others protested that they were asylum seekers using the legal process. But that didn’t appear to change the woman’s mind.

“They’re illegals,” the woman said as she pulled away.

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