Southern Maine Community College welding instructor John Gallagher left, with student Luvundisa Kalombako. A new welding class is teaching new skills to immigrants and refugees from Africa who are now living in Maine. Courtesy / SMCC

SOUTH PORTLAND — Harold Kalusa, 39, fled his native Angola in 2018 to build a new life for himself and his wife in America. Now, he is enrolled in a welding program at Southern Maine Community College, which he hopes will give him skills to build a career in this country.

“That’s the dream,” he said Tuesday, as he and his classmates, all immigrants and refugees from African countries, donned face shields and safety gloves to get to work.

SMCC is using a $15,000 grant from the Morton-Kelly Charitable Trust through the Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges to provide welding classes to a group of eight students. All of them come from Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, according to a news release from the college. SMCC began a partnership in 2019 with Portland Adult Education, called Building the Pipeline, to provide education for immigrants living in Maine, according to the announcement.

Cristiano Luemba, a native of Angola, practices cutting metal into pieces as part of a welding class at Southern Maine Community College. Sean Murphy / The Forecaster

“Through our Workforce Development Department and initiatives like Building the Pipeline, SMCC is helping new Mainers receive the training and education they need to secure bright futures,” said Jim Whitten, dean of workforce development. “At the same time, the training provides students with the skills that businesses are looking for to fill their workforce needs.”

Marti Cox, SMCC’s program coordinator, said all of the students have backgrounds in heavy industry, so choosing a program based around a skill such as welding made sense. The students, she said, have welcomed the chance to learn new skills.

“The fact that someone would offer an opportunity like this to them, it’s almost unbelievable to them,” she said.

On Tuesday, the students were working in the class’s fourth session, learning basic skills such as cutting and welding metal.

“For a group of people that have never cut before, their progress is awesome,” said instructor John Gallagher. “I show them exactly what they need to do, and they mimic every time.”

Southern Maine Community College welding Instructor John Gallagher watches as Cristiano Luemb practices attaching two pieces of steel together using a vertical weld. Courtesy / SMMC

Kalusa said he was a political activist in Angola, and came to America for his safety. He plans to become a naturalized citizen, and works for now at a Hannaford warehouse in South Portland, but he’d rather work in heavy industry again. Before he fled his homeland, he worked for 10 years for Halliburton Overseas as a quality manager, assembling oil well components.

“I’m very accustomed to working with metal,” he said.

The classes, he said, will help open doors to other jobs that fit what he wants to do.

“It’s been good,” he said. “It’s been very helpful. I’m learning quite a lot.”

Lievino Lobi, 45, an Angola native, emigrated to the U.S. in 2014, and lives in Maine with his wife and three children. He said he used to work as an industrial pipefitter, and hopes to eventually work on heating and ventilation systems. Learning to weld, he said, is a critical step in that process, and he’s enjoying the classes.

“I like everything we’re doing here,” he said.

Sean Murphy 780-9094

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