The line began forming shortly before noon outside Hope House on Sherman Street in Portland. Paperwork in hand, some with young children at their side, they waited patiently for the volunteers inside to assist them, as they do each Wednesday afternoon, with getting a toehold on the American Dream.

“I appreciate it, all that they did for me,” said James, an asylum seeker who came here in 2019 and asked that I use neither his last name nor his back story for fear of repercussions in his home country of Rwanda, where his wife and children still live. Since his arrival, in addition to recently landing a job and soon his own apartment, he’s gone from next to no understanding of English to discussing in detail what he read last week in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

“I’m trying, I’m trying,” he said, his eyes smiling above his mask. “Little bits.”

Today is World Refugee Day. To some, it’s yet another hook on which to respool the incessant argument about who should or shouldn’t be here, which asylum seekers are worthy and which aren’t, and what we as a society should be doing to lend them a hand or send them packing.

But away from the din, day after day, there are those who pour their energy not into debating, but doing. They work in havens scattered all over the country that share a singular objective: Assist these newcomers as they strive to make their lives better.

Hope House is one of those havens.

“There are so many people in Maine who are just quietly doing incredible things to help other people,” said Martha Stein, executive director of Hope Acts, the parent organization for Hope House. “We’re in a really special place.”

Founded in 2012 by the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, then co-pastor of Portland’s Hope Gateway church, Hope Acts sprouted from a vision of, as stated on its website, “a community where immigrants are welcomed and empowered socially, emotionally, physically, economically and spiritually.”

The nonprofit got a major boost in 2013 from local philanthropists Richard and Theresa Berman, who purchased what was once the Immanuel Lutheran Church on Sherman Street, converted it into five apartments and a basement education center, and offered it rent-free to Hope Acts as a port in the storm for those fleeing from trouble spots around the world.

Eight years later, Hope House stands as the only housing facility in Maine devoted exclusively to those who have entered the United States seeking asylum. Some 80 men and women – it’s not set up for children – have lived in groups of two or three in the stately, red-brick former church. From the start, the home has maintained its capacity of 13 residents.

James, who hopes his wife and children can someday join him here, has lived in Hope House since the fall of 2019. At 65, he’s currently the oldest resident – the youngest is 19.

“James is amazing. He’s quite possibly one of the most caring people I’ve ever met,” said Laura Doroghazi, a Hope House volunteer who has guided James through the bureaucratic maze that confronts any asylum seeker hoping to find a job. Just last month, James finally received his work permit and, only days later, a full-time job at Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter.

“Now I will have my own apartment,” he said, referring to the new digs in nearby Congress Square into which he’ll move in July.

Behind him as he spoke, the process began anew. Some arrive for their appointments with limited English – French and Portuguese translators are at the ready. Others, lost in the piles of paper, don’t know which way to turn. All are eager to get to work.

After adding work-permit assistance to its repertoire in 2019, Hope House helped some 500 asylum seekers obtain the precious document last year and is on pace to do the same in 2021.

“We recognized that this was an unmet need in the community,” Stein said. “The legal community is just buried in legal work, and so in talking with ILAP (the Immigrant Legal Aid Project) and other folks, they agreed that if we had a little training, we really don’t need to be a lawyer to do it.”

Some of the hurdles are straightforward – making sure an asylum seeker’s first and last names are in the right order, for example. But the seven-page application form, along with 30 pages of instructions, often require a painful look back for people who only want to move forward.

Doroghazi, the volunteer, remembers one of her first meetings with a woman who gave her, among other documentation, a written statement detailing what she’d gone through before arriving here. As a matter of policy, Hope House personnel don’t ask asylum seekers about the trauma that forced them to flee their homeland, but on this day Doroghazi needed to copy the documents for the woman’s file. Standing at the printer, she fought back tears she read the woman’s story.

“I went home that night and cried,” Doroghazi recalled. “You see it on TV and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s horrible. I wish I could do something.’ But seeing the person in front of you, it’s like, ‘Oh …'”

Hope House clients have to wait five months after applying for asylum to even seek a work permit. A Trump administration order extending the waiting period to 365 days remains in effect, but a federal court decision in Maryland has created a work-around whereby the timetable reverts to the previous 150-day requirement.

But from where Stein sits, that’s still too long. Especially in an economy that’s pleading for more workers.

“I get emails from employers all the time asking, ‘Do you have anyone?'” she said. Meanwhile, as the asylum seekers pour into Hope House’s basement each week, “all they want to do is work.”

Getting the application in is only half the battle. While the federal government is supposed to process them within 30 days, the wait often stretches into “two, three months, sometimes a lot longer,” Stein said.

Meanwhile, asylum seekers survive on General Assistance from the city that barely covers their rent and food. They take English for Speakers of Other Languages classes – Hope House enrolled 150 students in its program last year. And they wait.

It would be easy to throw up one’s hands at the inefficiency and unfairness of an immigration system that is clearly broken. In her five years running Hope Acts, Stein has seen only one person achieve full asylee status. All the other cases are still pending.

Still, the volunteers – Hope House’s roster fell from about 100 to 50 during the pandemic, but is slowly bouncing back – and the people they serve celebrate the small victories. A guy like James shows up, unable to speak English, and now reads the local newspaper not just to improve his language skills but also to learn about his new community. He spoke in detail Wednesday about last weekend’s story in the Maine Sunday Telegram that examined this year’s severe drop in foreign students coming to Maine to work for the summer.

“So it means this year the managers, they have to work hard because they do not have enough workers,” he said. “But maybe next year, it will be good.”

Back before James found his apartment a few blocks from Hope House, Doroghazi asked him if he’d be interested in living somewhere outside Portland, maybe Westbrook. Nothing against Westbrook, but he balked at moving that far away.

Why?

The answer lies in a thank-you note James wrote recently to the Hope House staff and volunteers for a present they gave him on his 65th birthday.

“I had to come to America alone,” he wrote. “And with you, I found my new family.”


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