BRUNSWICK — The journey from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Maine was long and perilous.

The most recent stretch for Nancy Mabanza, Roger Palaba and their three children involved several months traveling, sometimes on foot, through nine South and Central American countries on their way to the United States border. There were days in the dense rainforest of Peru and Colombia when they wondered whether they would make it. Their children cried from hunger. They saw fellow asylum seekers drown in the river.

When the family arrived in Texas in July and asked for asylum, they saw others like them heading for Maine. It sounded good.

They landed in Portland and spent two weeks at the Expo, with hundreds of other asylum seekers, before they moved 25 miles up the coast. It’s now been a little more than a month since they arrived in Brunswick, but Mabanza and Palaba said they have felt more welcomed here than anywhere in a long time.

Varlene Mafuta of the Democratic Republic of the Congo sits with her 11-month-old daughter, Pricile, while she waits to hear from her husband, who is at the hospital with their sick son. They still lack furniture in the kitchen. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Volunteers keep coming and asking: ‘What do you need? How can we help,’” Mabanza said through a French interpreter. “People are so kind.”

Brunswick has emerged as a popular secondary destination for the recent wave of migrants, many from the violence-ravaged central African countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As Portland officials looked to other communities to help find housing for several hundred asylum seekers housed temporarily at the Expo this summer, Brunswick offered to take a handful of families. The number quickly grew for a few reasons: Housing was available, town leaders were responsive, and a robust network of volunteers existed. Officials said the number of people settling in town could reach 90 or 100.

“Unprecedented,” Town Manager John Eldridge said. “We feel like we have a good handle on traditional municipal services, but we had no experience with this.”

A largely suburban town with a bustling main street, a vibrant restaurant scene and a top liberal arts college, Brunswick is home to just over 20,000 people, making it less than one-third the size of Portland, Maine’s largest city. It’s a progressive town – 44 percent of its voters are registered Democrats, compared to 33 percent statewide – but it lacks the same level of social services and immigration services that Portland and Lewiston have. Is it ready to help dozens of new immigrant families make new homes here?

“I think we’re going to find out,” Eldridge said.

A GROWING POPULATION

Even before the recent arrival of 450 asylum seekers this summer, Maine’s population of foreign-born residents had grown, from 36,691 in 2000 to 47,566 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s 3.6 percent of the total population. The biggest increase has been among immigrants from Africa, most of whom escaped political persecution and violence in their home countries and endured long, harrowing journeys to get here.

Although Brunswick’s foreign-born population is also 3.6 percent, the town has yet to see many new immigrants until now.

Nsiona Nguizani, a cultural broker, laughs with a group of women who have settled in a Brunswick housing complex. Nguizani is tasked with helping the dozens of refugee families in the area, coordinating visits to a laundromat, doctors’ visits and integrating the children into the school system. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Already the town has committed resources, including hiring a cultural broker, someone who can assist families as they navigate the services designed to move them toward independence. Nsiona Nguizani, who himself was granted asylum from Angola seven years ago, started his new job last month and has found it daunting.

“There is no precedent. I can’t ask someone what the job is,” Nguizani said. “I’m building it from nothing.”

Brunswick also will likely hire additional teachers, especially language teachers, and will increase its General Assistance budget – emergency funding offered to people for necessities, such as food, medicine, housing and utilities. Each community decides who is eligible, for how much and for how long, and the state covers at least half the benefit. Brunswick’s reimbursement rate is 70 percent.

Asylum seekers are especially reliant on assistance because federal law prevents them from working in the United States for six months after applying for asylum.

Eldridge said Gov. Janet Mills’ decision to allow asylum seekers to receive General Assistance, reversing a previous policy of Gov. Paul LePage, was “a game-changer,” even if it means Brunswick’s budget will increase.

Town Councilor David Watson is among those concerned about the financial impact of taking in so many people who can’t yet support themselves. He said the town has been grappling with a growing homeless population and hasn’t done enough to serve them. Still, he voted with his colleagues to create and fund Nguizani’s $70,000 position.

“How they got here is not the issue. They are here now,” he said. “The abuse stops here.”

Some town leaders are wary of a backlash, especially given the level of anti-immigration rhetoric in this country.

“There will be people who don’t agree with what we’re doing, of course,” said Sarah Singer, a school board member and leader of the Emergency Action Network, a volunteer group that already existed and has mobilized to assist new residents with everything from rides to appointments to donating food and furniture.

So far, if there are widespread negative feelings, they haven’t spilled over publicly.

“Why shouldn’t they come here?” said Norman Terry, 74, last week. “What’s the alternative? Send them back? That’s not who we are.”

‘AN URGENT NEED’

Brunswick officials first started preparing for arrivals in late June.

“Once everyone realized we had a chance to step up, the thought was that it was so important to get the logistics right and do this well,” said Town Councilor Dan Ankeles. “This is an opportunity to say, ‘This is what we stand for.’”

What the families needed most was housing, and that’s what Brunswick had.

Developers Chris Rhoades and Andrew Preston bought more than 300 units of former military housing at the onetime Brunswick Naval Air Station, as well as dozens of acres of land, in 2017.

“Portland said they needed help, they had an urgent need,” Rhoades said. “And when you hear some of the stories about where these people came from and how they got here, it was an easy decision to make.”

They offered two large single-family homes and said families could live there for the first three months free. Other families have filled vacancies at apartments at Brunswick Landing on the former Navy base. Mabanza, Palaba and their children are living in a home on Bath Road, on the outskirts of town.

Eldridge said the outpouring of support among townspeople was immediate. Within the first few days after Brunswick agreed to take in some families, 75 volunteers signed up.

“We didn’t know how to use them,” the town manager said.

Nsiona Nguizani shows Varlene Mafuta of the Democratic Republic of the Congo how to open her windows and use the blinds. He has been hired by the town of Brunswick to help immigrant families. Staff photo by Derek Davis

That’s where Nguizani comes in. As president of the Angolan Association of Maine, he was well connected to the Portland African immigrant community. He speaks the three primary languages of the asylum seekers – Portuguese, French and the Bantu language Lingala – as well as English.

Nguizani also is an immigrant success story. In Angola, he held advanced studies in medicine and business and worked as a project manager for a non-governmental organization. But he had to start over in the United States. He earned a GED, then an associate degree in business administration from Southern Maine Community College. Last year he graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and economics.

Nsiona Nguizani meets with representatives of advocacy groups in Brunswick. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Mabanza has a business degree from her home country. Palaba worked in construction. They are eager for any opportunity, even though they carry psychological scars from their journey.

Being able to access General Assistance – especially since they can’t work for at least six months – removes the financial pressure, but they said accepting the money has been a struggle. In their country, they explained, you work if you want to eat.

“We’ve been eating every day but haven’t gotten a chance to work for it,” Palaba said.

HELP WITH THE BASICS

Nguizani has found that his job means tackling problems big and small.

One Wednesday last month he spent the morning at a Portland hospital, helping a father communicate with doctors about his son, who was hospitalized with an unknown illness. Before he left, he told the man he would connect with his wife in Brunswick, who had no way to communicate with him and learn what was happening with her son.

From there, he met with Donald Lader Jr., executive director of Midcoast Literacy, who had many volunteers and tutors waiting to learn how they can help. Lader asked what the families needed most and Nguizani said they needed help with basics: shopping, banking, how to navigate the post office and local transportation.

Graca Katumba, 8, plays in the courtyard of her home in Brunswick. Her parents are seeking asylum in the U.S. Staff photo by Derek Davis

After meeting for an hour with Eldridge at Town Hall, Nguizani made it to Brunswick Landing, where most of the families are staying. Children ran around, and rode bicycles and scooters. Women sat outside in camp chairs. They conversed easily with Nguizani, who took notes at each stop he made.

Most were wary about talking to a reporter because their asylum status is uncertain and they didn’t want to say anything that could jeopardize it.

Even Mabanza and Palaba were wary to share too many details of their home country and what led them to flee.

“We had to do what we could to protect our children and their future,” she said.

They have been twice to the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, whose lawyers take cases on a volunteer basis, but the agency is not accepting new clients at this time. They were encouraged to hire a lawyer but were told it would cost $7,000. They can’t work to pay the $7,000 that is needed to allow them to legally work. They don’t know what will happen with their case.

Still, they are happy in Brunswick. Portland felt like the city where they lived in the Congo, but Brunswick seems quieter. More trees, they said. Safe.

Alline Palaba, 3, walks into the Brunswick house where her family is staying. They are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and are seeking asylum in the U.S. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Their 9-year-old daughter, Monique, and 7-year-old son, Nathaniel, are enrolled in school. Their 3-year-old daughter, Alline, spends the day with them. They would like to put her in a preschool so she can learn English. At home, she hears only French.

They are grateful to have someone like Nguizani to call.

When he gets more settled in his position, Nguizani wants to host a public meeting for community members and answer any questions people might have about their new neighbors. It might mean reminding some people of the simple fact that seeking asylum is legal immigration. In such a polarized time, he hopes people are patient and understanding.

“There is only one Brunswick, one Maine,” he said.

This story was updated at 8:12 p.m. Sept. 8 to clarify elements of Nancy Mabanza and Roger Palaba’s journey to Maine that were inaccurately stated because of a reporting error and challenges with language interpretation.

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