Aishat Ibrahim Jimoh talks to her daughter, Saffiyah, 1, in March before she begins her nightly Ramadan prayer to break the fast at their Portland apartment. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Second of six parts

Aishat Ibrahim Jimoh arrived at a detention center in Texas exhausted and stressed. Her children were crying and asking if they were in prison after they were separated from their father and had to sleep on a mat on the floor.

Read the Long Way Home series

They were in the custody of U.S. officials monitoring them for COVID-19, and she didn’t know if they would be deported back to their home country of Nigeria.

Life in the detention center seemed unbelievably daunting. But it was there that a pair of Congolese women told Jimoh about Portland, Maine.

“I knew about Texas, California, Alabama and New York,” she said. “I couldn’t pronounce it. I said, ‘Portland, Maine. Is that in the U.S.?'”

Two years later, Portland is home to the 37-year-old, her husband and their three children.

The family is among thousands of asylum seekers who have arrived in Portland over the last four years, primarily from Central African countries including Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo.


The asylum seekers have complicated and varied reasons for leaving their home countries, often involving personal danger, unrest and government repression. Why they choose to come to Maine is simpler: They heard they’d find safety, a safety net, kindness.

“There’s space for immigrants,” said Carlos Joao, 29, an asylum seeker from Angola who said he found out about Portland when he did research online about the best destinations for immigrants. “We’re welcome here.”

Portland city officials and organizations that work with the newcomers say they often are told such things.

“It’s a safe place, and it’s a place where a lot of them have family members or where they know of other people who have come and stayed or passed through,” said Kristen Dow, Portland’s director of health and human services. “Everything I have heard, either from the southern border or from asylum seekers themselves, really is about it being safe.”

Aishat Ibrahim Jimoh puts food on the plate of her eldest son, Abdousamad, 9, while her middle child, Youssuf, 6, lines up behind him at their apartment in Portland on March 24. Jimoh and her family are asylum seekers from Nigeria. She and her husband traveled to the United States as asylum seekers with their two sons. They have since had a daughter, Saffiyah, who is 1. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Most asylum seekers seem to learn of Maine either from friends and family or people they meet in their travels.

Maine’s General Assistance program and existing communities of immigrants are draws, though the state doesn’t always live up to the expectations of newcomers. Many aren’t expecting Portland’s overcrowded shelters or to find so many people already here in line ahead of them for services. Some come in winter, unprepared for the cold.


At Portland’s family shelter, it’s common to see them in flip-flops at all times of the year.

“We try to dress them and make sure people are warm when they arrive, but there’s only so much we can do,” said Mike Guthrie, the family shelter’s director.

This winter, he had to give a woman a pair of socks to wear on her cold hands because she didn’t have gloves and the shelter had run out.

“It’s hard,” he said, “because you want to do more.”

The women Jimoh met at the detention center were headed to Portland. Jimoh was bringing her family to stay with her brother in Belmont, Texas. She didn’t know if she would ever see her detention center friends again.

But they kept in touch and a few months later one of the women, Bibiche, messaged her on Facebook. “She was like, ‘Aishat, come to Portland, Maine. Maine is good,'” said Jimoh.


Aishat Ibrahim Jimoh checks to make sure her three children, from left, Youssuf, 6, Abdousamad, 8, and Saffiyah, 1, have everything they need for dinner at home in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When she and her family flew from Austin to Portland in April 2021, the other woman, Bernie, and a local pastor picked them up from the airport and took them to the family shelter. They slept there their first night in Portland, and the next day received vouchers to use at Hannaford.

It had been a long time since Jimoh had seen her sons, now 8 and 6, as happy as they were in the grocery store.

“They were like, ‘We want this! We want this!'” she said.

Producing in-depth reports like “Long Way Home” is labor-intensive and expensive. At the same time, we are keeping access to the series open so that it can be read by everyone, especially asylum seekers. These stories can also be heard in a variety of languages through the audio player at the top of each page. To choose a language other than English, click or tap the globe logo next to the play button. See how.

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The family’s journey from Nigeria had been so long. They set out from home in Lagos in 2014, fleeing government corruption and personal danger because of Jimoh’s husband’s involvement in politics. Jimoh said she couldn’t say too much about the situation because she is preparing to have her asylum case heard by a judge and does not want to make public comments that could affect the outcome.

But she said Nigeria generally isn’t safe, especially for children, who can be targeted by ritualists who want to sell them or their body parts. “I want my children to be safe and have a safe environment,” Jimoh said.

Asylum seekers and refugees have been coming to Maine for years, so there were already small communities of people from Central African countries in Portland in 2019, when numbers suddenly spiked and about 400 people arrived over the course of the summer.


Word about compatriots in Portland traveled fast – and continues to do so.

“People coming to the country will go where they know there’s a community already established,” said Dow. “There is a large community here from those countries, so they’re coming here.”

In February, family shelter staff had to set up chairs in the multipurpose room for people to sleep in sitting up because they had run out of space to accommodate any more mats on the floor.

Roitelet Ndunza Pindi sits with his son, Salvador, and his wife inside the daytime space at Portland’s family shelter on March 14. Pindi and his family had been sleeping on mats in the warming shelter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Roitelet Ndunza Pindi, his wife and their 4-year-old son arrived in the city around that time. They had left the Democratic Republic of Congo because of dangerous backlash after the 2018 presidential election. Pindi was a supporter of opposition leader Martin Fayulu, who lost but said the election was rigged.

Pindi said he joined post-election protests, was arrested and beaten, and didn’t feel safe. So he and his family left, first for Angola, then Brazil. The goal was to find a safe, developed country. But in Brazil, Pindi said, racism and crime were rife, and he always felt like a foreigner.

In February 2022, news broke that a Congolese man, Moise Kabagambe, who like Pindi had fled violence and conflict in their home country, had been beaten to death by a group of men wielding a club and a baseball bat after he tried to recover back pay from the Rio de Janeiro beach kiosk where he served drinks.


“When we heard about that, we were terrified,” said Pindi, who told his story in French, through a translator, at the shelter. “That’s how we left Brazil.”

The family spent two months traveling from Brazil to Mexico, an exhausting journey that included crossing a rushing river where Pindi might have lost his son if a fellow traveler hadn’t stepped in and saved him.

People he met on the journey told him about Maine and he looked it up on the internetbut Pindi said that when he arrived at a California detention center, officials told him Portland’s shelter was full and that he needed to go where he knew someone.

A friend in Iowa bought the family plane tickets there. They slept first at a church, then at a hotel that required them to leave during the day – until the hotel said they couldn’t stay any longer.

Roitelet Ndunza Pindi kisses his son, Salvador, at Portland’s family shelter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Pindi said that someone he didn’t know bought his family plane tickets to Portland, and they arrived in early March. He had no clear idea of what it would be like. All he knew was what he had heard: that it was a good place and assistance was available.

The people he’d met on his travels who had gone to Portland hadn’t been very specific.


“They didn’t say what the conditions are,” Pindi said. “They just said, ‘Come, come.'”

Police at the Portland International Jetport told Pindi and his family which bus to take to the shelter. Pindi had a little bit of money, but the bus driver told them they didn’t have to pay.

Two days after his arrival, Pindi said he wasn’t sure yet what to think of the city. But he was glad his family had a place to sleep.

“What the city of Portland is doing is great,” he said. “They’re doing the best they can.”

More than a quarter-million people filed for asylum in the United States in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review. The nearly 1,400 Portland has welcomed so far this year represent just a tiny fraction of the overall numbers. But for a city of 68,000, that number is a lot.

“Our numbers are extremely high when you look at per capita,” said City Manager Danielle West.


She said Maine is unique in the amount of resources it makes available to noncitizens.

“The General Assistance program is different from and more robust, I would say, than what’s available in a lot of states around us,” West said. That makes coming here very attractive, she said, given how long asylum seekers have to wait for work authorization.

General Assistance is a program administered by municipalities to provide for basic needs such as housing, food, utilities and medical care in the form of vouchers for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to provide such things for themselves.

“And I would say that because we are such a welcoming state and welcoming community, that that’s working in our favor as well,” West said.

In Texas, Jimoh said, it was difficult to get help. She said she’d waited eight hours at the local health and human services office without anything to show for it. She and her family stayed with her brother, who came to the U.S. years ago on a visa and is now a citizen, for five months, but began to feel like they were too much of a burden.

“He didn’t complain, but we knew how things are,” she said.


She didn’t know much about Maine when she got here, but was pleasantly surprised.

Aishat Ibrahim Jimoh wants her children to live in a safe place. She met other asylum seekers in a detention center in Texas who told her to come to Portland, Maine. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

After five months in a room at the Quality Inn in South Portland, covered by General Assistance, the family was able to get into a two-bedroom apartment in Portland. They have been helped by Greater Portland Family Promise, a nonprofit that works to find secure, stable housing for homeless families, including many asylum seekers.

“Everything we have here is from Family Promise,” said Jimoh as she gave a tour of the apartment, showing off the bunk beds in her sons’ bedroom and fawning over the washing machine. Both boys attend elementary school in Portland and love it. “The teachers are wonderful. Everything is perfect,” she said.

Greater Portland Family Promise helped the family get furniture, baby clothes and a crib for Jimoh’s one-year-old daughter, and a mentor from her sons’ school gave them a couch. When they moved in, Jimoh sent a video to her brother in Texas. He couldn’t believe how much help the family had gotten.

“He said, ‘Are you still in the same state?'” she said. “I said, ‘Yes. I’m not in Texas. I’m in Portland, Maine.'”

Roitelet Ndunza Pindi watches his son, Salvador, play at Portland’s family shelter on March 14. Pindi and his family sleep on mats on the floor at the shelter and during they day they sit for hours inside the daytime space. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Michelle Lamm, executive director of Greater Portland Family Promise, said the city and community partners in Maine offer families much more help than they might get in other states.


“For us, things look really hard and there’s an overabundance of people needing services and resources,” Lamm said. “But somehow families are eventually getting a roof over their heads, whereas in some states you would just be completely turned away.”

Ismael, an asylum seeker who arrived in March by way of California, said he learned about Portland from other Angolans he met on his journey from home.

“Most of them said, ‘You should come to Portland because Portland is where they are receiving refugees better,'” said the 29-year-old, who asked to be identified by his first name only because of the sensitivity of his asylum case. “They are helping with shelter – and when you apply for asylum, they will help you with general social services and following up on your case.'”

On a chilly afternoon in March, Ismael was one of several dozen single asylum seekers who lined up outside Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter in hope of finding a spot inside for the night.

He said he is seeking asylum because he participated in political protests at home pushing for better living conditions and human rights and against single-party control of the government.

Angolans are spreading out across Maine, Ismael said. You can find them in Lewiston and Sanford.


“All of them, their justification for being in Maine is because of the social services helping immigrants and refugees here,” he said.

It’s unclear exactly how many asylum seekers end up staying in Maine, though the University of Maine School of Law’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic estimates there are currently between 8,000 and 10,000 people with ongoing immigration cases in the state.

For some, the welcoming moments they experienced early on yield a desire to stay and give back.

Ismael, who worked as a software developer in Angola, said he hopes to be one again once he files his asylum claim and gets a work permit. He speaks English well because he studied in South Africa – which should be a great advantage.

“Wherever I find a place to stay, I will go, as long as it’s in Maine,” Ismael said. “I want to file my asylum here in Maine and start my life here so I can also benefit the state.”

Jimoh recently completed the bank teller training program at Portland Adult Education. Her husband was working for Abbott Laboratories until he was laid off last winter, and he recently started a new job at Lowe’s.

Some fellow asylum seekers who speak French have moved on to Canada, hoping to feel more at home in French-speaking Quebec, said Jimoh. But she and her family plan to stay in Portland.

“I just hope that one day I will contribute to the development of Maine,” she said. “Maine put a lot of things into me, so I have to pay it back and put a lot of things in to make it more developed than it was before. I have hope, and I think it will work.”

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