For most of the summer, Junior Lopema Dimandja’s family slept on green cots inside a cavernous basketball arena, surrounded by other migrants who began arriving in Portland in mid-June.

On Thursday, the family loaded suitcases, a crib and a stroller into the back of a pickup truck, leaving behind the emergency shelter that the city hastily set up nine weeks ago to house the hundreds of asylum seekers – mostly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – who have flowed into the city after traveling thousands of miles to reach the southern U.S. border.

After his family’s own long journey from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Portland, Dimandja said he is looking forward to his next stop in Brunswick, where he and his family are among more than 60 people moving into temporary housing.

Dimandja and his family were among the last migrants to leave the Expo for other housing as the city closed the emergency shelter Thursday afternoon. Portland officials announced shortly after 4 p.m. that it met the contractual deadline to shut down shelter operations in the basketball arena.

The belongings of a family of asylum seekers sit outside the Portland Expo as people pack up to leave Wednesday. All of the families were transitioned out of the Expo and are moving on either to host homes or the family shelter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Since early June, 448 people came to the Expo and the city had found temporary or permanent housing for more than 200 people in southern Maine. An additional 42 families have moved into the homes of temporary host families from Saco to Brunswick. Others have found their own places to stay or moved on to new destinations.

City officials said 26 people who had been staying at the Expo and were still waiting for a housing placement late Thursday afternoon were moved to overflow space at Portland’s family shelter or, if there is no room available there, into a gymnasium at the Salvation Army.

The city had to close the shelter at the Expo by Thursday because there are other scheduled events there in September and the Maine Red Claws basketball team is planning to refinish the gym floor before its season begins. The flooring work needed to be done before the coming basketball season and is not related to the shelter operation.

By late Thursday morning, only a handful of families lingered in the Expo to pack their bags. City employees helped families wheel carts piled with their belongings to waiting cars before shifting their attention to cleaning cots and dismantling the humanitarian operation.

“It’s very emotional because when we started this, we started with 400 people. This place was full,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. “We knew we could do it, but it’s been a labor of love. We’ve seen Portland just open up.”

In addition to the city opening up the shelter with support from nonprofits and state agencies, volunteers cooked meals, served as interpreters and helped staff the Expo. And community members donated nearly $1 million to the city to support the new arrivals.

Chitam said many of the asylum seekers she’s worked with are relieved to be moving into apartments or into host homes.

Asylum seekers who have been housed at the Portland Expo pack their belongings to leave for housing in other parts of Maine on Thursday. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

“You see the relief in their eyes that they know they’re going to put their head on a pillow,” she said.

Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, called Thursday “a really great day” for the city and all of the organizations and volunteers who have been working to find housing and provide other services to asylum seekers.”

“It feels like everybody just came together to make this happen,” she said.

While most families would be out of the shelter by the end of Thursday, Chitam said much of the work is just beginning. A task force of service providers is focused on addressing immediate needs, including transportation, while also helping people find legal advice, English classes and permanent housing, she said.

An ssylum seeker who has been housed at the Portland Expo packs and stacks belongings to leave for housing in other parts of Maine on Thursday. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said 212 people had been placed in temporary housing in multiple communities in southern Maine before Thursday. Another 26 people were moving to Brunswick on Wednesday. City funding and the state’s General Assistance voucher program will help pay for their rent.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings issued a statement thanking city staff for working around the clock to manage the operation, as well as giving credit to community groups, volunteers donors and state officials who all contributed.

Asylum seeker JR Lopetha Dimandja of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, addresses members of the media as he and his family leave the Portland Expo for housing in Brunswick on Thursday. Daughter Emerald, 4, looks on. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

City employees will continue working to locate housing for the families that remain in the city’s shelter system. Some of the nearly $1 million donated to the city to help asylum seekers was used to hire two extra housing counselors and two extra financial eligibility specialists, Grondin said.

The migrants also are just beginning the long process of seeking asylum so they can become permanent residents. They will have to maintain contact with immigration courts and assemble documentation and other evidence to prove they face violence or persecution in their homelands. Some of the families have described fleeing their homes because they feared being arrested or killed because of their political activity or associations.

While legally allowed to stay in the United States while pursuing asylum, they will not be allowed to work until at least six months after filing a formal application. The asylum review process itself can take years.

Dimandja, the asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was relieved to be heading to an apartment in Brunswick. He came to the United States with his wife, Mputu Bola Ebonze, and their daughters, 4-year-old Emerald and 2-year-old Elka. Their 2-month-old baby, Chris, was born in Texas before they came to Maine.

Dimandja is looking forward to resting after the long journey that included being separated from two older children whom he hopes to bring to the United States, he said through a translator. He said he is happy to be in a place where his children will receive a good education and where he can work once he meets the legal requirements.

More than anything, he said, he is thankful to be in a place where he and his family feel welcome and safe.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.