Mufalo Chitam, the executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, works closely with the asylum seekers from Africa who arrived in Maine this year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In May, social services officials in Portland received an out-of-the-blue call that would send the city scrambling.

Hundreds of central African asylum seekers were headed here on buses from San Antonio, Texas, mysteriously drawn to a small, frostbitten city in far-off New England.

Portland’s leaders were taken aback. The city’s policy is to shelter everyone who asks for it, but Portland’s facilities had neither the beds for hundreds of arrivals, nor the food, clothes, translators or legal services. What were they to do?

Later that day came a call from Mufalo Chitam, executive director of Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, essentially demanding to be included in the response.

“We are going to be a part of this,” Chitam, 48, of South Portland, remembers saying.

Portland filled a basketball arena with cots. Hundreds of thousands in donations flowed in. Volunteers overwhelmed the city with offers to help.

The city handled it. Scores of volunteers, including members of African community organizations and other immigrant rights’ groups, were instrumental to the effort. Yet between seemingly every facet of Portland’s response, the link was Chitam.

For the rest of the summer, Chitam spent every day at the Portland Expo. From breakfast at 7 a.m. until lights out at 8 p.m., she helped translate, found ethnic food, organized activities for children and arranged transportation. On nearly every decision made by the city, Chitam was in the room.

It might have seemed like an improbable bit of organizational wizardry, but Chitam didn’t produce her connections out of thin air. In fact, she spent years building the roots that she would draw on last summer.

In 2000, Chitam moved from Zambia to Maine with her husband and 2-year-old daughter, with the help of the U.S. visa lottery. With a graduate degree in public administration from her home country, she took administrative jobs at local institutions such as the University of Southern Maine.

Over the years, she also became a go-to person for immigrants looking for a connection to housing, jobs, transportation and a community to welcome them.

Eventually, Chitam turned that informal job into a full-time one. In 2017, she joined the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, a nonprofit founded by the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project that works to improve social and economic conditions for new arrivals. As the coalition’s first executive director, Chitam coordinates efforts among 57 member organizations, including Catholic Charities Maine, ACLU-Maine, the Congolese Community of Maine and numerous others.

Last summer at the Expo, what kept Chitam going through the 13-hour days was the memory of finding her own home in Maine – and the joy of giving that feeling of belonging to others.

“I know what they’re going through. I know what it feels like to get a house – just a house, with nothing in it,” she said in an interview last month. “That’s energizing. That’s what gives me fulfillment.”

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