A new program at the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine gives provides New Mainers after-school access to health and wellness activities and educational help. The Portland club is shown above. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

Young New Mainers are getting some help from those who know what it’s like to tackle the language and cultural barriers that come with moving to a new country as kids.

The Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine started a new program in Portland and South Portland last month for asylum-seeking children. It provides homework assistance, music and wellness programs and recreational activities, said program Director Baba Ly said. It also provides transportation from schools to the clubs and then back to the hotels-turned shelters in South Portland for 240 of the program’s participants.

“School is only a set time, which the kids are out of the hotels,” said Program Director Baba Ly. “After that time, the kids have no other place to go … instead of being stuck in the hotel all afternoon, they can come here.”

High schoolers at the Boys & Girls Club in Portland play Uno last week. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

Elias Antonio, Margarida Celestino and Laelle Otshudi all study at Southern Maine Community College and work part time at the clubs as program assistants. Antonio and Celestino are from Angola and speak English, Lingala and Portuguese while Otshudi, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, speaks English, Lingala and French.

Most of the children in the program come from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well.

“There’s a little kid that I work with a lot,” Otshudi said. “She always comes to the front desk and she’s crying because she doesn’t have a friend or she’s trying to make friends, but they don’t speak her language, so it’s really frustrating.”


The program assistants act as translators and they help with English lessons, using tools like online games. Language is a major hurdle that all three SMCC students had to overcome themselves.

“I’ve been in their place before,” Celestino said. “I learned English around the same age that they were. I moved to a whole different country around the same age as they were. I can understand the frustration that a lot of them are feeling, because it’s like you’re trying to communicate with your peers, with the adults, and nobody understands.”

Antonio agrees.

Elias Antonio, originally from Angola and now a student at Southern Maine Community College, works with young New Mainers at the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

“I was once in their shoes too,” Antonio said, “so looking at them is like looking at myself four or five years ago … you have to start everything from zero.”

They also like to explain cultural differences, they said.

“Some of the kids like to eat with their hands,” Otshudi said. “Some of the other kids are like ‘why are they eating with their hands,’ and that’s something I like to help with. Some cultures eat with their hands.”


Sometimes the New Mainers can be very loud, scaring some of the other children.

“We tend to be very loud with each other,” Otshudi said. “We just grew up that way.”

Portland’s club was bustling with children last Tuesday, running around the halls, playing pool and doing homework. High schoolers are given their own space in the basement with room to do homework and to also complete their assignments and also play cards and video games.

The club has always provided recreation for both children and high schoolers, including a basketball league over the winter. It’s shifting course for this summer.

“This summer we are planning to do a soccer league,” Ly said. “These kids coming here, most of them, I think, know soccer more than any other sport, so they’ve been playing with Elias a lot.”

The club provided cultural competency training for staff members as part of the program, Ly said, to better their ability to help the New Mainers.

“My colleagues do a great job,” Ly said. “As they share the same culture, it’s been really, tremendously helpful to close the gap between cultures.”

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