Asylum seekers Dada Nzau, left, of Angola and Claudine Kembo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, holding her 5-month-old daughter, Charnelia Masunda, talk at the Portland Expo on Sunday. Nzau has been in Maine for two weeks. Kembo and her daughter spent seven months in North Carolina before coming to Maine three weeks ago. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

After six weeks sleeping on small canvas cots in the Portland Expo, the city’s latest wave of asylum seekers are looking forward to relief in the form of more permanent lodging.

Local authorities are working to find homes for the migrants before mid-August, when the Maine Red Claws reclaim their arena. The circumstances have spurred both a logistical scramble for city officials and some welcome news for the asylum seekers, many of whom said they were grateful for their accommodations – but very much ready to move on.

Some have found housing already, leaving the Expo for such nearby communities as Brunswick.

Portland officials took over the arena as an emergency measure earlier this summer, when hundreds of migrants, mostly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, began arriving from the southern border. Word had spread on the long and dangerous trail through Latin America of a welcoming attitude in Maine’s largest city, along with available social services and an existing African community.

Meanwhile, the days pass slowly for the Expo residents.

Without air conditioning, the basketball arena is hot and muggy inside. Every few feet stands a blowing fan, often with shirtless children playing in front of it. The huge delivery doors stand open on most days, with enormous box fans bringing in fresh air from outside.


With little to do – asylum seekers cannot legally work for at least six months after they file their claims – some residents while away the hours on their cots, dozing or gazing up at their phones in the middle of the day.

Others take short walks through the neighborhood, though, having little concept of the city’s geography, many said they rarely ventured farther than nearby Deering Oaks.

“I’m still a little afraid to go too far,”Milena Nzumba Makina, a Congolese asylum seeker, said Sunday. “I don’t know anybody here. I don’t know this city.”

Children of asylum seekers housed at the Portland Expo, play near a fan on Sunday. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

City officials and volunteers serve regular meals and are on hand to play with restless children. One recent day, they took families into town for a showing of “The Lion King.”

Donations and volunteers have flowed in from surrounding communities, including mountains of clothes and toys – and, by last count, several hundred thousand dollars.

Greater Portland residents have staged several recent events in support of the new arrivals.


On Sunday of last week, the mere whiff of an anti-immigrant protest – a Facebook event that failed to garner interest and eventually was canceled – brought hundreds of pro-immigrant demonstrators to the Expo for a gesture of support.

Friday saw two more demonstrations, one by the area Jewish community and another by critics of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Fourteen participants in the latter event were cited by authorities for refusing to leave government property.

Gov. Janet Mills recently opened Maine’s General Assistance program to newly arrived asylum seekers, reversing a LePage-era policy and giving the Expo’s residents immediate access to state aid.

English classes are starting up for adults and children, too.

Jean-Paul Kakweni, a Congolese immigrant who speaks French and a local Bantu language, said Sunday he was focusing on learning English as quickly as he could. He opened up a spiral-bound notebook, showing rows of phrases copied down in his neat hand.

A Red Cross worker in his home country, Kakweni hopes to acquire the language skills to serve the aid organization here.


“God willing,” he added in English, with a smile.

At 9 p.m., it’s lights out, said Milena Nzumba. The migrants head to their cots, guided by two glowing signs – advertising the Red Claws and McDonald’s – that stay lit through the night.

It’s often hard to sleep. The cots are narrow and rigid, and children are up and making noise until the early hours of the morning.

“You get used to it,” Nzumba said, rocking her daughter to sleep in a stroller on Sunday afternoon. Her child, only a few months old, was born on the road through Latin America and is staying with her in the Expo.

Kakweni said his wife, who is seven months pregnant, couldn’t manage to doze off on her cot. For now, he said, she finds it easier to sleep on the floor.

Another resident, a Congolese man who declined to give his name for fear of political reprisal at home, was philosophical about his circumstances.

“It’s just for a little while,” he said. “It’s not forever. We’re here, and just for the moment, the government is taking care of us.”

An electrician in his home country, the man said he hoped to learn English quickly and take up a similar job here. His classes start soon. For now, though, he is content to wait.

He paused, and then raised his hands, palms up. “C’est la vie.”

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