The woman was doubled over in pain, seated at a table in Portland’s family homeless shelter. Her infant child, one day released from a hospital birthing unit, slept in a donated crib in the next room. On a nearby bunk, clothes spilled out of open suitcases.

Her husband held the couple’s other child, a fidgety toddler, and tried to explain to the shelter worker, Ageno Cap, what they needed.

It took some effort. He spoke, and understood, little English.

Sometimes, the needs of the hundreds of asylum seekers who have traveled to Portland in recent months are massive – housing, employment, language assistance. Often, though, they are smaller and immediate.

For this woman, in this moment, it was a high-seat portable toilet that she could use without having to bend down and stretch her abdomen, which was still recovering from childbirth.

Cap is one of a small group of city employees working to meet the needs of hundreds of adults and children who have fled their countries of origin in search of a safer life, and have ended up in Maine after a months-long and often perilous journey to the southern U.S. border. Most are coming from unsafe countries in Central Africa, but others started in South America or in Haiti, where a devastating earthquake hit this summer.

They are seeking asylum and are allowed to stay in the United States while making a case for permanent status in immigration court, a process that can take months, or longer. Under the Biden administration, more families have been released from their temporary detention so they can travel to communities where others have found new homes.

As politicians debate the country’s immigration policy – some with a clear preference for a closed border – the reason so many asylum seekers come to Portland is not complex. They are welcome here.

“We don’t turn anyone away. That’s sort of the whole point of our shelter,” said Mike Guthrie, program manager. “Whatever these people have gone though, and many have gone through a lot, we want them to feel safe.”

Mike Guthrie, the director of the Portland Family Shelter, talks with a woman who presented to the shelter with her son on Oct. 20. The woman and her son walked to the shelter from the Greyhound station in Portland because they arrived with no money left. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Indeed, Portland has become a word-of-mouth destination for many, even before they arrive at the U.S. border in Texas. But with more and more families arriving each week, limited resources are strained. The family shelter has space for only 42 families. Dozens and dozens more are staying in local hotels while they await their immigration status or more permanent housing, or both.

As of last week, 29 families consisting of 84 people were staying at the shelter, and another 135 families of 437 individuals were being housed at hotels in nearby South Portland.

“I don’t anticipate a slowdown in the coming months,” said Aaron Geyer, Portland’s director of social services. “It’s not an ideal scenario, but it’s the scenario we’re faced with.”

In many ways, the challenge is more daunting than what Portland faced two years ago, when a large number of asylum seekers arrived in a short span, forcing the city to convert its professional basketball arena to a temporary shelter. Those New Mainers have now been settled – some in Portland and surrounding communities, some farther north and east in French-speaking parts of Canada.

Because of the pandemic, and the intermittent nature of new arrivals, the Portland Expo has not reopened this time. But just as many families have come to Portland this summer and fall, only now they are scattered, invisible to most.

City staff members allowed a Press Herald reporter and photographer to spend several days shadowing them on the condition that the asylum seekers’ privacy would be protected. Many are advised not to share many details about their journey until their immigration status is settled. And many also fear that being identified could pose risks for family members left behind.

At the shelter, Cap promised she would try to find a portable toilet for the woman who had recently given birth. The woman smiled through her pain, but she had another question: When would they be able to move out?

Cap couldn’t answer directly but said it would likely be a while longer. There are lots of families, she said.

The woman’s smile faded.

“OK,” she said, resigned. “Thank you.”

‘IF SOMEONE PRESENTS, WE TRY TO HELP THEM’

Early one morning last month inside the family shelter’s common room, staff gathered to talk about the families they planned to meet with, and what kind of help they need.

John Shippee walks the family of five over to one of the overflow rooms at the shelter. The family left Africa and traveled from Brazil, up through South America, Central America and crossed into the United States through Mexico. They have three daughters with them, ranging in age from 16 to a 1-year-old. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Guthrie mentioned that a property owner in Old Orchard Beach might be willing to let the city use a seasonal hotel there, at least until next spring when tourist season picks back up. Staff members would check it out. Leads like this have been rare.

Even as they outlined plans for the day, there was an understanding that things could, and likely would, change.

“Sometimes you might come in and find a new family sitting on the stairs. You just don’t know,” said Amber Bowman, program coordinator at the shelter. “And then you drop everything.”

For the families who originate from central Africa, the journey can take many months. It starts typically with a flight to Brazil, then an overland journey across Colombia and Panama, through dense jungles and over tall peaks, including one known by migrants as the Mountain of Death. Some pay smugglers to help them and they are frequently targeted by bandits.

After reaching the U.S.-Mexico border, the migrants sometimes have to wait weeks or months before they can present themselves at a U.S. border station and ask for asylum. They are detained and processed in San Antonio before being allowed to enter the country and travel to their final destination and pursue their asylum application.

“You turn on the news and see the images of people under the bridge in Texas,” Guthrie said. “And now they are here.”

In October alone, 45 families totaling 145 individuals came seeking help. Of those, 39 families and 128 individuals were asylum seekers. Six new families had arrived at the shelter on one day alone.

They arrive in Portland by bus or sometimes by plane and then make their way to the shelter, by bus or on foot. Sometimes they appear late at night, when the biggest priorities are getting them warm and fed.

“This might be the first good interaction they have had in months,” he said.

After many months spent on the move, so much of their time now is spent waiting. It’s hardly the most difficult part of their journey, but it’s fraught with uncertainty all the same.

During this time, their housing and other needs are paid for through the city’s General Assistance program, of which the state covers 70 percent, and which is supplemented by the generosity of social service agencies and charities.

The housing market is unforgiving, especially for tenants who are relying General Assistance vouchers.

Esther Rukundo, left, talks with the parents of the family of three after their belongings were moved into a motel in Old Orchard Beach. The rooms have a true kitchenette, eating area, and some have actual separated bedrooms, which most did not have in their previous motels. They asked Rukundo about where they would be able to buy groceries, and she informed them that the city arranged to have vendors come to the motel with groceries. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

John Shippee, a human services counselor who primarily works with landlords, estimated that less than 10 percent of landlords are willing to accept General Assistance because there are limits and they can get more on the open market. And the apartments they might rent rarely become available.

“It used to be that you could at least find an apartment,” Shippee said. “Now, people aren’t moving. There is just this logjam.”

Jobs are more plentiful and increasingly well-paying, but asylum seekers can’t work for at least six months, sometimes longer – a willing and able workforce sidelined. They also can’t qualify right away for federal assistance programs like food stamps.

Every so often, staff members hear rumblings from someone in the community who suggests that asylum seekers are being helped at the expense of others, which isn’t true.

“There isn’t anything offered to them that isn’t offered to anyone else who walks through our door,” Guthrie said. “If someone presents, we try to help them.”

‘WE ALL BRING OUR DREAMS WITH US’

Chelsea Hoskins arrived one morning last month at a South Portland hotel where dozens of asylum seekers are staying and set up a makeshift office in the lobby.

Hoskins has worked in the city’s social services department since 2017 but recently took on a newly created position – resettlement coordinator – that is paid for with federal grant money.

“Out at the hotels, it’s often hard to know what they need,” she explained. And we don’t have full-time staff here.”

Hoskins shares the space with stacks of food. Cans of soup. Applesauce. Fruit cocktail. Anything that is either ready to eat or can be heated by microwave.

On this day, she was thinking about the fast-approaching cold days and nights and creating a list of warm clothing needs for asylum seekers. Marcel Selemani would accompany her to ask the families about clothing sizes.

Selemani – Papa Marcel, as he’s known to many New Mainers – is the city staff member most fluent in Lingala and French, the two most common languages spoken by central African refugees. But he also represents something else: hope. He, too, is a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and fled for a better life a handful of years earlier.

A teenager holds her little sister as she and her family wait outside of the family shelter with all of their luggage after presenting there on the afternoon of Oct. 20. She is a part of a family of five that, like most other asylum-seeker families, came to Maine directly from the Southern border after being released from detention. Three families showed up at the same time that afternoon, two of whom had met traveling and were friends. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The families see Selemani as a man who was like them not long ago and now has an important job and purpose in this adopted country. It’s why the families come here, he said, because they believe in the promise of America, despite its flaws, and that their lives – and more importantly, their children’s lives – will be safer here. More stable. Full of opportunity.

“These are all places of unrest, of war that we are leaving,” Selemani said. “And we bring our dreams with us. All of us.”

When he arrived in 2016, Selemani was able to fly directly to Atlanta, then Nashville, where he spent 11 months before traveling to Portland in August 2017 and seeking asylum there. He stayed the first six weeks at Portland’s Oxford Street shelter for homeless adults. Things were a little different then, he said. Not as many central African immigrants had settled. But he said Portland was indeed welcoming, and it still is.

Before he can even sit down at the hotel, Selemani is approached by families who have some need or another. A man has a food voucher through General Assistance but can’t get to the grocery store. Selemani explained the bus schedule and told the man to be patient. Hoskins tells Selemani to remind him about a life skills class later in the week. Someone would come and educate new Mainers on how to shop for food effectively and how to cope with limited or no cooking space.

Other organizations, such as the nonprofit agency Preble Street, drop off culturally appropriate meals such as fufu, doughy balls of starch vegetables that have been boiled and pounded using a mortar and pestle. They are often dipped in sauces or served with stews.

Selemani delivers mail when he’s there, and often helps translate. None of the families has a fixed address. Any mail comes to the family shelter. Oftentimes, it is immigration paperwork or forms from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Marcel Selemani speaks with an asylum seeker who came to him with a question at the motel. Selemani is sought out by many of the families when word gets out he is at the motel. He speaks French and Lingala and is the major point of contact with most of the asylum-seeker families. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Hello Mama,” he says to a woman who opens a door inside the hotel. A small child peaks out from behind her legs. He hands the letter to the woman, who almost immediately hands it back and asks him to help sort out what it means.

Selemani sits down and helps a family fill out paperwork to apply for MaineCare health insurance benefits. Three children toggle between the back room, which has two double beds, and the front area, which has a couch and desk. A television plays cartoons.

Selemani asked one of the girls about her clothing sizes. She doesn’t know, but he’s gotten pretty good at guessing. She will be in school next week. He’ll relay the information to Hoskins.

Many ask about jobs but are told they must wait until federal customs and immigration officials settle their asylum claims.

“So many are ready and willing to work,” Guthrie said. “Many have college degrees, but they often don’t translate here, so they have to start over. That can be frustrating.”

‘YOU HAVE TO FIGHT’

With winter approaching and space running out at both the family shelter and the hotels that have agreed to house families, the city has been forced to get creative.

Geyer – the city’s social services director – inquired with the Old Orchard Beach chamber of commerce to see if he could put a notice in their newsletter that Portland was looking for more temporary housing for asylum seekers.

“We are leaving no stone unturned in this endeavor,” he said. “We’re at capacity at the shelter and we’ve started to get to a point where we’re at capacity at the hotels, as well. If you’re not housing folks at the same rate, you have to increase the capacity.”

A short time later, Geyer got a call from a hotel owner in Old Orchard Beach. He had 20 units in two buildings that he planned to close for the winter but would offer them to the city if they could reach 70 percent capacity. That wouldn’t be a problem.

The units weren’t that much bigger than the hotel rooms, but they had separate kitchen and dining areas.

Hoskins, the resettlement coordinator, then sent an email out to service providers in the area to let them know the city was moving 20 families.

“It was really lovely to see people respond and say, ‘How can we help?’ ” Hoskins said.

Marcel Selemani walks to a recently arrived family’s room at a motel in South Portland. Selemani himself was once an asylum seeker and came to the United States in 2016. He stayed the first six weeks at Portland’s Oxford Street shelter for homeless adults. “These are all places of unrest, of war that we are leaving,” Selemani said. “And we bring our dreams with us. All of us.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Last week, city staff began moving families.

A minivan pulled up to the front of the hotel where a family of three from Angola has been staying in a single room for about a month. Two parents and a 1-year-old son.

Selemani and Guthrie helped the father load all their belongings onto a luggage cart and then down to the vehicle. Plastic bags of clothes and leftover food. A blanket with Winnie the Pooh. Diapers.

The hotel building in Old Orchard Beach is only a short distance from the iconic pier that teems with life in summer. On this brisk fall day, it’s quiet.

Upon arrival, the family and city staff were greeted by employees with Biddeford Adult Education, who brought winter hats and boxes of diapers and told the family members they would follow up about language classes. Another city worker, Esther Rukundo, is there too, to help communicate with families. She speaks French and Lingala.

Guthrie said the city was working on food deliveries, too, since the closest grocery store would not accept General Assistance food vouchers.

As the boy hopped on an empty mattress and played with a toy truck, Rukundo told the parents to avoid cooking with palm oil – it can easily set off smoke detectors. Make sure to keep the door closed, she said, because it’s starting to get cold.

The parents started to unpack what little they have.

The ideal scenario, of course, is for these families to find permanent housing before May, when the hotel rooms will be used again for tourists. But for now, they are safe and can spread out just a little and can cook their own meals.

The parents thank Rukundo profusely as the toddler runs around the new space. He wasn’t even walking when they started their journey and now, he doesn’t stop moving.

“America is going to offer you opportunity, but you have to fight,” she tells them.

Later in the afternoon, the couple walked with their son down to the beach, which is just steps from the hotel. The sand stretched out for hundreds of yards before curving toward Pine Point in Scarborough.

City employees didn’t stick around. There were more families to move.

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