Alain Jean Claude Nahimana, a tireless advocate known for his work to strengthen the community and help new immigrants arriving in Maine, has died.

Alain Nahimana Press Herald file photo

Nahimana was the son of a Burundi ambassador who fled political turmoil there after being arrested and tortured. He eventually settled in Maine, where he would become the founder and executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center.

Mary Allen Lindemann and Shima Kabirigi, co-chairs of the center’s board of directors, announced Nahimana’s death late Sunday. They requested privacy both for his family and the center’s community. He died from complications of diabetes, Lindemann said in an email.

“How lucky we were to have Alain in our lives. As he often said, by working together, we can make great things happen. It is our job now to fulfill his vision to ensure that Greater Portland’s thriving immigrant community fully reaches its civic, economic and social potential,” Kabirigi and Lindemann said in their statement.

Nahimana, 49, previously served as the coordinator for the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition and as president of the Burundi Community Association of Maine. He and Damas Rugaba, an immigrant from Rwanda, came up with the concept for the center when they realized there were many different communities of immigrants working separately who could be more effective if they shared resources.

The center, which opened in 2017, serves as a hub to strengthen the immigrant community through language acquisition, economic integration and civic engagement.

“We want everyone who comes here to know they have a chance,” Nahimana said in 2017 when the center opened.

Nahimana, who spoke six languages, was raised primarily in Burundi but also spent time in Switzerland, where his father was an ambassador. His mother was a chairperson of the Women’s League of Burundi and advocated for women’s rights, which Nahimana credited with driving his passion for political work.

“I inherited her vision that to build a strong community, one has to empower women. The gender component is very important for me in whatever I do in immigrant communities,” he told the ACLU of Maine in 2014. “Women are the pillars of society and families. We need to recognize that and act accordingly by giving them the same opportunities and rights they deserve as citizens.”

After studying economics in college, Nahimana started a public relations firms and participated in politics in Burundi. He was arrested, imprisoned and tortured after criticizing the country’s ruling political party, he told the ACLU. He went into hiding after he was released.

“The country was going under political turmoil. I sensed I was in danger and I had to leave,” Nahimana said during a 2014 interview on the WMPG program “New Mainers Speak.”

Nahimana sought asylum in the United States and spent two months in San Diego before coming to Maine in 2010. He chose Maine because he was looking for a smaller place to start a new life where he wasn’t just “a drop in the ocean,” he said on “New Mainers Speak.”

“(In Maine), I learned how to be myself. I learned how to say what’s in my heart without fearing that someone is going to blame me for my opinions, which is the most important thing,” he said. “I learned about fairness and diversity and collaborating with other people. You can achieve more by working with other people than by working alone.”

Claude Rwaganje, founder of PropserityME and a Westbrook city councilor, said Nahimana was “really somebody with charisma, a true leader and advocate who wanted the successful integration of immigrants.”

Rwaganje first met Nahimana a decade ago, shortly after Nahimana had arrived from Burundi and was attending a workshop Rwaganje was hosting. They went on to work together at the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, where Nahimana was part-time coordinator and Rwaganje was on the management team.

Through Nahimana’s leadership, the coalition acquired more funding, grew from a dozen members to more than 30 and registered as a nonprofit. Nahimana was always strategic and wanted to have a clear plan before he moved forward, Rwaganje said.

“He was a person with a big vision and a big dream. He never shied from speaking his mind or trying to strategize what he wanted to accomplish,” he said. “He would say ‘Claude, when you call a big meeting of the community, talk to some of the leaders individually. Let them know the goals we want to accomplish so they can come knowing what the goal is,’ ” he said. “That is the strategy he always used.”

Rwaganje said Nahimana’s leadership and advocacy are especially needed now, when minorities are being affected by COVID-19 at a higher rate and there are large discrepancies in health care.

“The New Mainers have lost a true leader, somebody that along with others fought so hard for immigrants’ rights and for immigrant integration. We have lost a pillar in the community, some who united and was a true leader we needed at this time,” he said. “We needed someone like Alain to join other leaders to fight for equal healthcare and better equity in general.”

Portland City Councilor Pious Ali first met Nahimana when Nahimana was volunteering with the city’s refugee services program. Ali would talk with Nahimana, who staffed the front desk, and the men became friends.

Over the last few years, Ali watched as Nahimana’s leadership role in the city grew as he fulfilled his vision of connecting immigrants and the business community. Ali called Nahimana a visionary whose work benefited both the city and state.

“It’s great loss to our state,” Ali said.

Nahimana was an advisory council member for Indigo Arts Alliance, which posted a statement on Facebook that described him as “an effective community builder and advocate for Maine’s diverse African immigrant communities.”

“He was an enthusiastic partner who believed in the strength and importance of the entire African Diaspora,” the statement said. “Our heartfelt prayers go out to his family and loved ones.”

Nahimana also served on the board of directors of the Environmental Health Strategy Center. Executive Director Mike Bellivea said Nahimana was a “brilliant social entrepreneur who knew that achieving environmental and economic justice was critical to empowering immigrants to improve their quality of life.”

“We’ll greatly miss his cheerful can-do attitude and his leadership for healthy housing free from the threat of lead poisoning and other hazards,” he said in a statement.

Ryan Bouldin, board chair for the Environmental Health Strategy Center, said board members are “shocked and deeply saddened” by Nahimana’s passing.

“Alain’s passion and advocacy for Maine’s immigrant community was inspiring and essential in our work for environmental health justice here in Maine and nationally,” he said in a statement. “Today, we commit to honoring Alain’s legacy by redoubling our efforts to advance his vision for a more inclusive and just society, and encourage others to do the same.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree said Monday that Nahimana was a “tireless advocate for Maine immigrants.”

“Through the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, Alain promoted civic engagement among new Mainers and encouraged them to understand the power and responsibilities of citizenship – crucial work given the injustices that are front and center in our country today,” Pingree said in a statement. “His legacy will live on, especially in the GPIWC’s initiative to identify and register thousands of immigrants in Maine who are eligible to vote and help get them to the polls so their voices are represented in government. His contributions to our state will be long remembered.”

The immigrant welcome center will post a GoFundMe campaign and announce memorial plans once they are confirmed.

“We look forward to celebrating a life well-lived and making him proud by continuing the outstanding work which had just begun at GPIWC,” Lindemann and Kabirigi said.

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