He promised this would happen.

Seven years ago, just before he proudly took the oath to become a U.S. citizen, Maxwell Chikuta told me his “miracle,” as he called it, was just beginning.

“I am just above the poverty line, so I’m not yet comfortable,” he said at the time. Still, he added, “I am glad. I pay tax with pleasure. With pleasure.”

Thursday afternoon, sitting in his office above his new store at 570 Brighton Ave. in Portland’s Rosemont neighborhood, Chikuta took a rare pause in his busy day to reflect on his journey from refugee of the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo to budding Maine entrepreneur.

L’Africana Market, the eclectic food store he opened on June 1, is his second business. He financed it not with a bank loan, but with profits from Omni Ventures, a cleaning company he founded a few years ago.

“Without public help, I would not have made it this far,” Chikuta said, looking back on that raw, late-winter day in 2003 when he and his wife, Sally, found themselves shivering on the steps of Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter – strangers in a strange land, unsure where to turn next.


“We didn’t have money then,” he recalled. “We were sleeping for free in the shelter and in the morning we would eat at the soup kitchen.”

From the shelter, they would soon find an apartment on nearby Grant Street, paid for with funds from the city’s General Assistance program. They would eventually qualify for food benefits under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

In short, Maxwell Chikuta, his wife and their children started out their lives here heavily reliant on help from the government and the community as they climbed the ladder to self-sufficiency.

They were, in the eyes of the law, “public charges.”

The phrase took on a more ominous meaning last week as the Trump administration rolled out a new immigration rule aimed at limiting who can and cannot be admitted to this country.

Assuming it survives myriad court challenges, the measure will add benefits such as SNAP, government-subsidized housing and Medicaid health coverage to the list of criteria used to determine whether someone seeking entry to the United States or permanent residency here is likely to depend at any time on government support.


To be clear, the rule does not apply to refugees or asylum seekers, which Chikuta and his wife were when they arrived here 16 years ago – as are the 400-plus recent newcomers who filled the Portland Expo before the city moved them elsewhere and closed the makeshift emergency shelter on Thursday.

But embedded in the new federal rule is the toxic myth, fomented at every opportunity by President Trump, that immigrants from central Africa and other poor regions come here only to live off American prosperity, not to contribute to it.

Men’s suits hang from the wall behind Maxwell Chikuta, owner of L’Africana Market, while he weighs salted cod on a scale for a customer. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Chikuta begs to differ.

“My Bible tells me not to speak negatively about leaders,” he said, choosing his words carefully when asked about Trump’s latest gambit. “I do have respect, but he’s going overboard.”

Chikuta’s story is one of steady ascension.

He spoke no English when he arrived here at age 35. Now 51, he speaks it fluently along with eight other languages – he often serves as an interpreter for those newly here from Africa.


He landed in Portland with only a seventh-grade education. He now displays on his office wall a framed bachelor of science degree in industrial technology from the University of Southern Maine, a master’s degree in public policy and management from USM’s Muskie School of Public Service, a graduate certificate from USM in applied research and evaluation, and, recently hung atop all the others, a doctorate from Walden University in public policy and administration.

He worked for 14 years at Maine Medical Center, most of them as a technician in the hospital’s engineering department. Now he employs four people in his cleaning company and two in the store – all immigrants who came to him looking for that all-important first paycheck.

“They are all hard workers,” he said. “They’re happy to have (the work) because it’s their entry job into society. I train them.”

He can’t hire everyone, of course. But even when he has no openings, he patiently offers to look at would-be applicants’ resumes and coaches them on how to improve their chances at employment elsewhere.

He’s also the go-to man in the immigrant community for tax preparation, help buying a car or figuring out which auto insurance policy to choose. “Go to Maxwell,” they tell one another. “He will help you.”

When the throngs of mostly Congolese and Angolan immigrants began arriving in Portland in early June, Chikuta donated food from his new store and added two checks, $300 from each of his businesses, to a community fundraising effort now approaching $1 million.


“I don’t have enough money to do more,” he said. “I’m just starting out.”

But what he can’t donate in cash and food, he freely gives in encouragement. When some of the new arrivals at the Expo heard of Americans who didn’t want them here and wondered if they should keep going all the way to Canada, Chikuta urged them to wait, be patient.

“Negativity in society, it’s going to be there,” he told them in Lingala or one of their other native languages. “Even if you are the mayor, even if you are a senator, there are people who are going to talk negatively about you. So don’t judge Portland, Maine, or the state of Maine based on those negative comments you are hearing. Stand firm. You are here. You are eating. And one day, you’re going to have your papers and start working and taking care of your family.”

Just like he did.

Chikuta works incessantly. L’Africana Market operates seven days a week – 10 hours a day on weekdays, 12 hours on Saturday and on Sunday afternoon.

“We close on Sunday morning because of God,” he said.


His inventory reflects his clientele: Smoked kingfish from Ghana and frozen anchovies from Tanzania fill the chest freezers, while Monster Energy drinks and Fanta sodas compete with mango juice for space in the cooler. Women’s wigs and braid extensions hang high on one wall, along with a smattering of men’s suits and colorful African “bubu” dresses.

“My next goal is to open a boutique,” Chikuta said, admiring the clothing.

He also operates a ride service of sorts. If a customer stocks up on, say, a 40-kilogram bag of cornmeal, or an armload of frozen cassava leaves, Chikuta isn’t one to look out his store window and watch her try to board a city bus.

Jessie Carole Benga, 3, plays with the entrance door to L’Africana Market in Rosemont, while her mother shops inside. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“She’s pregnant, and it’s raining outside – you can’t just leave a poor woman from your store waiting out there,” he said. “No, no. It’s not in me.”

So profit margins be damned, he grabs his keys and drives her home.

He hopes to reach the point where he can hire someone to make the early-morning weekly trips to the food distributors in Boston. He’s even contemplating yet another venture – “Max Kitchen” – to offer monthly cooking classes to non-immigrants interested in learning about African cuisine.


“I’ll sell tickets,” he said. “And then we will have a meal!”

Beyond his own achievements, Chikuta’s four children – two were born here, two came from Africa after he and his wife got settled – are busy becoming success stories unto themselves.

Max, 15, and Nehama, 13, are in high school and middle school, respectively. Emmanuel, 20, works at the Diamond Cove resort on Great Diamond Island. Sharon, a 22-year-old rising junior at George Washington University, currently is an intern with Dell Technologies in California.

It’s a far cry from the cold bleakness of Oxford Street all those years ago, when one sideways glance at the Chikutas would be all the less tolerant among us would have needed to dismiss them as hopeless – or, worse yet, decry them as a threat to America’s future.

Recently, Chikuta watched a BBC documentary titled “Meet the Trumps: From Immigrant to President.” It chronicles, among other things, how Frederick Trump, the president’s grandfather, came here from Bavaria and for a time sold the meat from dead horses to gold miners along Alaska’s appropriately-named Dead Horse Trail.

“He was making hamburgers out of horse meat,” Chikuta said, marveling that from those humble beginnings came a U.S. president.


What’s still to come from Maxwell Chikuta – or, for that matter, the hundreds of other immigrants now gaining a foothold in Maine?

Chikuta smiled.

“I have bigger plans,” he said. “And I hope the guy upstairs is still giving me more time.”

God knows he’s earned it.

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