From left, Council Chairman John Perreault, Town Manager John Eldridge, Councilor Jane Millett and Councilor Dan Ankeles. Millett and Ankeles will join Councilor Steve Walker on a task force with three school board members to help orchestrate a smooth transition process for the many migrant families headed to Brunswick. (Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record)

BRUNSWICK — A dozen asylum seekers who had been staying in Portland relocated to Brunswick last week. This Friday, 10 more are expected to join them. Others will likely follow.

While there has been an outpouring of community support and people volunteering their services, there remain “very critical and urgent needs,” including language assistance, food and transportation, according to Brunswick Town Councilor Jane Millett.

“We need to make it priority No. 1 for the moment,” she added during a council discussion Monday on what Brunswick should and will do to help accommodate the asylum seekers. 

“It’s something we’re going to have to address as a community,” Councilor Dave Watson said. “These people are coming here, they’ve been abused. I don’t want to see them abused in Brunswick. Whether I agree with their coming here or I disagree with them coming here is irrelevant. They’re here now. We need to work together as a community to make this into a positive situation. … I want their experience in this community to be positive.”

Councilor Christopher Watkinson said he thought “only good things can come from incorporating people from different life experiences” into the community.

Since June, hundreds of asylum seekers have entered Maine, primarily from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, fleeing violence and persecution. Portland officials set up an emergency shelter in the Portland Expo and are housing people there until Aug. 7. Officials are trying to find housing for people as quickly as possible.

One Brunswick developer, Chris Rhoades of Brunswick Housing Venture in Brunswick Landing, has offered rent-free assistance for at least three months to some of the families, the 12 most recent and the 10 soon-to-arrive people coming to Brunswick will stay in two vacant houses in his development. Other landlords and Brunswick residents have also offered and accepted migrant families needing a place to stay. 

“Asylum seekers did not flee their home countries and come to this country to be a burden,” said Carol Kalajainen,  of the Midcoast New Mainers Support Group. They came here to have a safe home, to raise their children, to pay taxes and contribute, she said. 

More than that, according to Sarah Singer, a school board member and board member of Brunswick’s Emergency Action Network, “they just want to be seen as people with their own agency,” not just vulnerable or victims. 

Singer and Kalajainen and their organizations, along with others like Mufalo Chitam, the executive director of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, have been working with the migrant families since they arrived last week and have tried to provide support and get them settled. 

“It’s a lovely group of people,” Singer said, “I feel lucky to have been given the opportunity to get to know them.” 

In the coming days and weeks, as the town tries to figure out how to best use the available resources, Singer stressed that is important to involve the families in the discussions.

“Their agency has been lost in the last several weeks,” she said, adding that they have been treated as a large group rather than individual people, and “everything has been done for them and to them.”

There have been meetings about them but not with them. She suggested officials should continue to meet with them with the help of translators (they primarily speak French and Portuguese) and cultural brokers who can bridge the divide between the cultures, making the transition as easy as possible. 

Brunswick housing developer Chris Rhoades has offered at least three months rent-free assistance to asylum seekers moving to Brunswick. (Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record)

Finding someone to facilitate and coordinate these conversations will be one of the first tasks of a steering committee made up of three school board members and councilors Millett, Steve Walker and Dan Ankeles. The first meeting has not been scheduled, but they intend to “expedite the hiring of a person who can facilitate the transition,” Millett said. “Someone ready, willing and able to take this on.” 

Ankeles suggested a designated town fund to raise money,  since Brunswick, unlike Portland, does not have an immigrant relief fund and the families will not qualify for general assistance and cannot work for at least six months.

“One of the things that’s really clear is that there are a lot of people willing to help,” Town Manager John Eldridge said.

The next step is coordinating all the efforts. Brunswick will likely follow in Portland’s footsteps, he added, by compiling a list of resources and services. Some of the work has been rushed, since they initially thought the families would not be arriving for several more weeks. “This has been a rapidly evolving process,” he said.

While town officials and organizations get to work coordinating the offers from volunteers and nonprofits, Singer said they have been asking for Shaws and Walmart gift cards to help the families get settled. They are also looking for Portuguese translators. 

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