Nsiona Nguizani is helping asylum-seekers and their children get used to life in Brunswick. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — Nsiona Nguizani doesn’t sleep on Fridays. 

It’s the one night of the week that Brunswick’s cultural broker, the man who described himself as being like the father of 22 families, can take the time to think, to plan, to look at the big picture for the 100 asylum seekers resettled in Brunswick, without having to deal with the near-daily crises. He can sleep in on Saturday. 

Of course, that doesn’t always happen either. As the point of contact for dozens of people, his phones are constantly ringing. He often has a cell phone pressed to each ear, speaking in Portuguese or Lingala into one and English or French into the other. 

Nguizani was hired in August to help facilitate the complicated cultural transition for the nearly 40 people who initially arrived in Brunswick from Portland, where city officials set up a temporary shelter for the hundreds of people seeking asylum from violence and persecution in countries like Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Now, their numbers have swelled to about 100, far beyond the original estimates. Because of this, Nguizani’s daily work is more focused on dealing with small emergencies than the complicated cultural transitions he was hired to facilitate. 

Can you imagine?” he said in an interview earlier this winter. “You have to deal with school, health, legal matters. I mean, they rely on you to live.” 

Nguizani was initially hired for six months, but it did not take long before town officials realized his services would be needed for far longer. In December, his contract was extended to a year. His salary is $70,000. 

Earlier this week, the town received $70,000 from the City of Portland to pay Nguizani’s salary for the first year, excluding benefits. When Portland accepted over 400 migrants this summer, the city quickly raised over $900,000 to assist in their resettlement and is now doling out some of that money to the nonprofits and community partners who stepped up to help. 

Brunswick’s $70,000 was by far the highest amount in the first round of donations, but only scratches the surface of the town’s costs.

In the application, Brunswick Assistant Town Manager Ryan Leighton told Portland officials that while he was requesting compensation for Nguizani’s salary, “Unfortunately, the town of Brunswick’s role began after the adoption of our municipal budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.”

“We now estimate that the annual cost related to the asylees living in Brunswick would be in excess of $400,000,” he said.

“From the beginning, it was clear the town did not have adequate infrastructure in place to navigate and provide appropriate support for an immigrant population of this size,” Leighton wrote, and he urged the committee to “consider the breadth of responsibility the town of Brunswick has had to assume in a very short period of time, with special consideration given to the fact (that) locally, there was not already a well-established network of resource providers.”

Town Manager John Eldridge said Wednesday he expects to have a more detailed breakdown of the costs available for the council and public soon, and that it includes additional resources for Nguizani. 

“He’s spread too thin,” Eldridge said in December, adding that trying to coordinate among people who are all at different levels of understanding and in different circumstances is “hectic.” They are trying to balance helping the families get acclimated with teaching them how to do certain things on their own. 

“It’s a complicated process and there’s still a lot of need,” Eldridge said.

The town has been working to find an assistant for Nguizani, which would free him up to “handle some of the more complex issues,” instead of the routine tasks, Eldridge said.

The assistant’s responsibilities would include keeping Nguizani’s database of information and resources current, coordinating rides and services, as well as handling some of the paperwork and clerical tasks that currently prevent Nguizani from doing some larger-scale work. 

Eldridge said Wednesday that the town has a general assistance/human services position available, and they are considering having that role split with the assistant cultural broker responsibilities. 

Originally, Eldridge hoped to fill the position by Jan. 1 but so far, the position remains open.

Nguizani said he is trying to “trust the process,” but admitted he could even use two people to help.

Nsiona Nguizani, a cultural broker, helps Varlene Mafuta of Democratic Republic of the Congo contact her husband who went to the hospital with their sick son. She holds her 11-month-old daughter Pricile in this August file photo. Derek Davis / The Portland Press Herald

The expectation is you’re going to keep doing the same thing for everybody, but what is happening now, I am forced to prioritize,” he said earlier, but “When you do that people feel like they are not being served the way they should.” For now though, “it’s a good place to begin.”

The biggest challenge is preparing the families for their coming asylum legal processes. 

Nguizani is also an immigrant, who came to America in 2012, at which point he applied for and was granted asylum. He knows what challenges many of the families have faced. 

“Nobody just leaves home, leaves everything behind, just to come to America, just for nothing,” he said in August. “There is a reason why we are moving.” 

Their stories are often painful. Many lost loved ones along the way, or they have been detained, separated from their families. Some have had to wear ankle monitors as they traveled across the country. Even he does not ask directly about their journeys to America, and instead leaves it up to them to open up and share their stories when they are ready. 

“As long as there’s war, as long as there’s crisis, there will be refugees,” said Michelle Gentry, a federal attorney working for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. “The fight to be here’s just beginning. (They have) another harrowing journey in the legal system.” 

It can take at least seven months, sometimes longer, for an attorney to get the necessary documents from a person’s home country, interview witnesses and compile a case, Gentry said during a panel at the Freeport Community Library earlier this winter. 

Nguizani estimated that on average, it takes about 400 hours for an attorney to build an immigration case. 

Without an attorney, an asylum seeker has a 90% chance of losing their asylum bid, and that chance is still as high as 50% with one, Gentry said. The rate of success overall can vary so greatly from judge to judge, region to region, that chances can range from 2% to 70%, with an estimated success rate of about 35% in immigration court, she said. 

Each family has to apply for asylum before its first full year in the United States, which for most families in Brunswick will be between May and July. Nguizani said that, ideally, he hopes to have everyone’s case built by the end of February. 

At least two families already have appointments to go before the judge, but the first is not until November, and the second is more than a year away, scheduled for March 2021. 

“For me, from where we are standing, it’s one more year just waiting to hear what they are going to say,” he said, but added they are trying to speed up the process to allow the families to start working sooner. 

Once they apply for asylum, asylum seekers have to wait 150 days, just about five months, before they can apply for a work permit. Some of the asylees can apply for a permit in July at the absolute earliest. Then the permit has to be issued, which Nguizani said could take anywhere from two weeks to nine months. Then they have to find a job. 

“My goal is to bring this group of folks to be independent,” he said, “but until they get income, you cannot talk about independence. It’s impossible… Independence Day is not the Fourth of July. I don’t know what it’s going to be but it’s not the Fourth of July.” 

A dragon made of snow in front of a Brunswick Landing apartment building. Neighbors Jeffrey Todd and Deborah Bailey helped the the neighborhood kids, who are asylum seekers from Africa, built the dragon, which also doubles as a fort, and supplied food coloring to “paint” it. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

There are still other challenges. They need to learn how to manage money when they do have it, learn how to use American produce and ingredients when cooking, the town needs to increase the transportation options and add more consistency to the Metro BREEZ.

Nguizani still struggles to ensure the roughly 25-30 children in the school system are getting adequate instruction in math, science and history classes, beyond the English and elective courses they currently take. A recent standoff with Brunswick Police and a subject allegedly armed with a rifle at Brunswick Landing brought Nguizani to work at 3 a.m., getting ready to make phone calls to explain the situation to the 100 people living nearby who, based on experiences in their home countries, are often scared by and mistrustful of uniformed officers. 

Then there are Nguizani’s personal challenges, like finding the time to take a breath, stop for lunch or spend time with his wife and three boys. 

But there has also been significant progress and moments of excitement. 

The families are progressing in their English, and some have moved from the beginner to the intermediate class. In January, the town helped Midcoast Literacy launch a new, multi-language ride scheduling software. They seem to have gotten the hang of living in a condominium, something that was new for most of the families. There was a big potluck. The kids have experienced snow and, with some of their neighbors, recently built an elaborate snow dragon/fort and had a snowball fight. Most exciting, perhaps, is the birth of a new baby late this fall. 

“You forget all the pain, all the things you are going through, just because you see that beautiful baby arriving,” Nguizani said. 

Many individuals and organizations, like Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, Midcoast New Mainers, Midcoast Literacy and more have stepped in to help. Brunswick-based volunteer organization The Emergency Action Network received $11,765 from Portland’s first round of funding for its work securing drivers, interpreters, thousands of dollars in gift cards and for opening up private homes as drop-off centers for donations.

The town established a community support fund on GoFundMe over the summer to help the families, which has to date raised $13,955. 

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