Pedro Miguel and his daughter Jamila, 7, walk past a person sleeping on the sidewalk as they head down Congress Street toward the family shelter where Jamila will be picked up by the bus for school earlier this spring. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Third of six parts

Pedro Miguel pushes open the heavy iron gate and lets his 7-year-old daughter, Jamila, pass under his arm and onto the sidewalk outside State Street Church.

He is taking her to catch a school bus after spending the night in a temporary shelter that the church has set up for asylum seekers.

Read the Long Way Home series

Bundled in a hooded winter coat, Jamila carries a small polka-dot backpack that contains a few clementines and granola bars offered by church volunteers. Her father’s gray sweatshirt and camouflage pants are scant armor against a brisk late-March morning in Maine.

“Vamos,” he says softly in Portuguese. “Let’s go.”

It’s a little after 7 a.m., and 41-year-old Miguel, his wife and four children are just beginning a long day of walking, waiting and learning the ropes in Portland, where immigrants have come for centuries seeking opportunity and a fresh start. They are one of three families – 11 people in all – that are spending their nights on rollaway mattresses lined up in the church’s Fireside Room, where the congregation usually gathers for coffee after Sunday services.

They are all from Angola, on Africa’s west coast, like many of the asylum seekers who have come to Maine in recent years. They have fled political oppression, religious persecution, poverty, hunger and abuse. They are strangers on foreign soil, 17,000 miles from their homeland, and they have experienced hardships and horrors to get here.


Jamila runs up to hug a friend she met from the family shelter while walking with her dad, Pedro Miguel, in downtown Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Now, they must navigate a maze of bureaucracy to meet their most basic needs, keep their families safe and start to build a new life in a new place. All of that is more complicated because they have yet to learn English or acquire work permits, although they are eager for both. And what they want more than anything is a home.

The Miguels started their journey six months earlier, traveling by plane, bus and on foot from Angola’s capital, Luanda, through Brazil, Nicaragua, Mexico and California, before arriving in Maine. Along the way, they spent some nights outdoors, with crackers as their only food. They crossed many rivers, narrowly escaping death.

They formed important but sometimes dubious bonds with other migrants, including one woman who pointed them toward Portland but didn’t mention that shelters here are full and the region is mired in a housing crisis. They don’t understand why more migrants keep coming to Maine.

The church converted its gathering space into a temporary shelter in early March. More than 1,000 asylum seekers had arrived in Portland since January, overwhelming the city’s family shelter. The progressive congregation, supported by several like-minded local churches, was selected to operate one of three temporary Portland shelters that the state funded through April.

Also at the church shelter are Amelia Afonso, 37, a single mom with three children, and Madalena Kenge, 33, and her daughter, Rafina, who is nearly 2. Kenge is pregnant and traveling without her husband, who has been held at an immigration detention center in Louisiana since they entered the U.S. in February.

From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the three families will be on the move in Maine’s largest city – attending classes, searching for housing, accessing social services and medical care, tending to asylum applications, and just marking time – until they can return to the church shelter when it reopens for the night.


Nkunku, who goes by Junior, 12, center, and his brother Josue , 9, left, walk toward the door at State Street Church as they leave for a day of school. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

They will be exhausted, frustrated and confused, but still utterly resolute.

“Whether it’s good or bad,” Miguel says, “we will remain here.”

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 asylum seekers begin to stir around 6 a.m. Light spills from the kitchen across the beds lined up in the room named for its large fireplace. Coffee is brewing. Volunteers who staffed the shelter overnight assemble elements of a grab-and-go breakfast: fruit, granola bars, yogurt, tea, hot cocoa.

Church member Eunice Bentley, who has worked with immigrants to Portland for more than a decade, says she always makes sure one of the options is fresh French bread smeared with peanut butter. She knows it’s a simple but favorite morning meal for many of the newcomers from Africa.

Miguel approves. He will skip the cold cereal served at the city’s family shelter.

“They have better breakfasts here,” he says.


Each school day, Miguel and his daughter walk about a mile from the church shelter to the family shelter on Chestnut Street, where Jamila and a dozen other children of asylum seekers catch a school bus to Presumpscot Elementary School.

On this day, Miguel’s wife, Anadia, 35, is heading to a prenatal appointment at Maine Medical Center with their 5-year-old son, Denilson, in tow. She is seven months pregnant. They hope the doctor will have good news.

Their oldest children, Enoc, 17, and Manosse, 16, make their beds, dress quietly and pack their knapsacks for the day. They will take a city bus to Deering High School.

Eunice Bentley, a deacon at State Street Church, looks at 7-year-old Jamila’s drawing at the church. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Bom dia,” Enoc responds politely to a reporter’s attempt at a Portuguese farewell. “Good day.”

State Street Church got a $150,000 state grant to shelter asylum seekers through April, giving the city time to set up 300 beds at the Portland Expo. But because the Fireside Room didn’t need major upgrades to house people, and churches provided volunteer staff, the congregation decided to spend the money on a more permanent emergency shelter in the basement that will open in the fall, with room for up to 36 people.

“The situation at the family shelter brought the immigrant crisis right to our door,” says the Rev. Bryan Breault, State Street’s pastor. “You hear about it. You pray about it. When it comes to your community, you have to do something about it.”


The city is still relatively quiet as Miguel and his daughter make their way down Congress Street, crossing over on Elm Street to Cumberland Avenue. Near the three beige apartment buildings that make up the city’s family shelter, Chestnut Street is strewn with trash, lost clothing, stray shoes. Families spill out onto the sidewalk.

Miguel and Jamila disappear into the packed waiting room, where breakfast is being served and parents discuss their plans for the day. A half-hour later, they walk back up to Cumberland Avenue, where they join a handful of mothers and children waiting for the school bus. The adults chat and the children play. Teenagers stream by on their way to Portland High School.

Jamila lines up with other children to get on the school bus that picks them up near the family shelter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When Miguel spots the bus approaching, the kids form a line on the corner. Jamila climbs onto the bus. Miguel is on his own.

He walks a block down Cumberland to The Salvation Army headquarters, where on weekday mornings volunteers serve free hot coffee from a walk-up window. Cup in hand, he heads inside to check the schedule of English classes offered four days a week.

The man at the front desk tells him there is no English class on this day, so Miguel heads back to the family shelter to wait an hour until The Salvation Army’s language lab opens.

At least nine local organizations offer educational programs to help asylum seekers learn English, gain computer skills and otherwise prepare to enter the job market when they finally get work permits, which can take more than a year. Many of the programs have waiting lists, but they greatly increase a newcomer’s chances of success.


Ricardo Ntemo, 24, supervisor of the language lab, knows the value of learning the local language. He’s done it a few times since he fled criminal gangs in Angola. Fluent in his native Portuguese and Lingala, he learned Spanish while traveling through Cuba, South America and Central America on his way to the U.S. He has learned English since he came to Maine a little over a year ago.

“Last year I worked here as a volunteer until I got my work permit,” Ntemo says. “If you want to work in a good place, you need to speak English. To get any job, to go to school, to become part of the community, you need to speak English.”

Pedro Miguel works on learning English at the Salvation Army language lab. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sometimes the language lab is crowded with as many as 30 people, most of them waiting for screen time. On this day, Miguel is one of eight immigrants in the room. He reads English translations of Portuguese words and pronounces them under his breath.

“I like English,” he says. “I want to learn.”

Miguel was a diaper vendor in Angola, near the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where his wife was born. Anadia Miguel sold clothing in a small shop. An uncle helped them raise enough money to escape political persecution and come to the U.S.

It was a difficult, sometimes dangerous trip for a large family. They crossed too many rivers to count, Anadia Miguel says. They saw bodies of people who had drowned. Tears well in her eyes.


They found solace and security joining others on the same journey.

“We found strength in God and in other people walking as a group,” Pedro Miguel says. “It motivates you to keep going.”

A church in California paid for their plane tickets to Boston, he says. From there, they took a bus to Portland.

They came to Maine at the urging of an Angolan woman they befriended at the U.S. border. She said she knew people in Portland and gave them a High Street address to claim as their destination, but it turned out to be a storefront. They have no friends or family here. They left everything behind.

“What little we brought with us, if it was heavy, I threw it away,” Anadia Miguel says. “Everything I have now, I received from the church.”

Amelia Afonso helps her son, Josue, put on his backpack for school at State Street Church. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Amelia Afonso, who also is staying at the church, ran a small convenience store in Luanda, a port city of 2.6 million people. The daughter of a retired university professor, she also fled political persecution, leaving behind her parents and siblings.


“I was a hardworking woman,” Afonso says through an interpreter. “I came here for my children.”

Like others who have come to Portland, Afonso didn’t set out for Maine. She heard about it at the border. People said it was cold but safe and she would find help here. She imagined something different.

“I was lost at the border. I didn’t know about Maine,” she says. “At least we have a bed to sleep in, but where we are is lamentable. We’re suffering a lot, especially the little ones.”

Afonso and her family are the first to leave the church each morning. They walk 9-year-old Josue to the family shelter, where he catches a 7 a.m. school bus to Ocean Avenue Elementary School. Then she shepherds Junior, 12, and Elsa, 13, another mile to King Middle School.

She returns to the family shelter to rest and plan the remainder of her day. She walks nearly everywhere she goes, in all kinds of weather. She’s juggling a lot on her own: searching for an apartment, checking for available English classes, managing her asylum application, trying to arrange health care for her children.

They haven’t been feeling well since they got to Portland in late January, she says, and health care providers have been urging her to get them MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid. Asylum seekers under 21 are eligible, but she says her repeated attempts to secure coverage have failed.


Amelia Afonso, right, sits next to Anadia Miguel after returning back to State Street Church for the night. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Afonso’s plan to try again on this day is suddenly derailed when she opens a letter confirming an upcoming appointment with immigration officials. It is nearly two weeks away and will be online. But she’s clearly anxious about the news and says she needs to go to the immigration office in Scarborough right away to make sure she will be prepared. She calls a friend who has driven her there before.

“This is a big problem for me,” she says. “I must go there.”

She has yet to hire an immigration lawyer – it’s another pressing task on her long to-do list.

When Pedro Miguel isn’t studying English, he’s following up on his asylum application or looking for housing. He has a housing voucher from the city’s General Assistance program, but he says city staff and others have advised him to look for an apartment on his own.

He checks in regularly with staff at Hope Acts, a Portland nonprofit that supports asylum seekers with English classes, housing and help in accessing available resources. Apartment hunting is nearly impossible when affordable rents are scarce and you know little English. His inability to find a place to stay is his biggest frustration.

Pedro Miguel tucks his five-year-old son, Denilson, 5, into bed at State Street Church. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“They told me not to wait and to look for myself because they are too busy,” he says through an interpreter. “What would make a big difference for us would be a home.”


Martha Stein, executive director of Hope Acts, says she shares Miguel’s frustration. Her agency runs Hope House, transitional housing for 13 people that’s always full, while her case managers work with about 20 families already settled in the community.

Her staff sees 30 to 50 new clients weekly, Stein says, but they’re lucky to find apartments for two families in a week.

“It’s very discouraging, but you have to celebrate the little victories,” Stein says.

Madalena Kenge returns to the church shelter just after 7 p.m. She is exhausted, sullen and in pain. She collapses on the bed she shares with her rambunctious daughter.

They spent part of the day sitting in the waiting room at the family shelter. They burned off some toddler energy at the small playground nearby. But mostly they just walked around the city until they could come back to the church. Kenge pushed Rafina in a stroller or carried her on her hip.

She is chilled to the bone and her back is killing her.


“It’s hard,” Kenge says through an interpreter. “We just walk around all day. The culture is different and we’re not used to the food.”

She says she feels safe in the church but is unsettled by the Amber Alerts that regularly pop up on her cellphone. She wonders if Maine really is the safe place she heard it was.

Madalena Kenge, 33, and her daughter Rafina, who is almost two years old, at State Street Church. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Kenge is three months pregnant and says she’s had no prenatal care. She hopes the baby is healthy and will be a bit less demanding than Rafina. A hairdresser in Luanda, she has yet to sign up for English classes or apply for asylum.

“I have to wait for my husband,” she says. Back home, he was a restaurant chef. They talk regularly by phone, but she’s not sure why he’s been detained. She thinks maybe it’s because they have different last names.

An evangelical Christian, Kenge says she fled political and religious persecution at the hands of her father, a politically powerful man who insisted she follow his messianic faith.

“I would not say his prayers,” she says.


Kenge says she also was abused by a former boyfriend, a police officer her father wanted her to marry. She pulls up the sleeve on her left arm to reveal long scars.

“My only thought was coming to safety here with the father of my children,” she says.

Mike Guthrie, the program manager at Portland’s family shelter, holds Rafina’s hand as her mom, Madalena Kenge, puts her coat on outside of the family shelter day space. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Amelia Afonso and her children are the last to return to the church. She says her trip to the immigration office went well, but her family still doesn’t have MaineCare.

“It’s very trying,” she says. “Only God gives me strength.”

She praises Eunice Bentley and the other church volunteers.

“They take good care of us here. I just wish we could find an apartment,” she says. “Sooner or later, it will happen. My dream is to build a life here. To go back to school and to work.”


As the day comes to a close, parents and children take turns showering, brushing their teeth and getting ready for bed. The powder room next to Madalena Kenge’s bed is busy. The full bathroom in the basement will be expanded for the church’s more permanent emergency shelter.

The carpeted Fireside Room is quiet, except for occasional giggles from the youngest. The older children and parents text, talk or watch videos on their cellphones.

Denilson, 5, hugs Josue, 9, after they both arrive back at State Street Church. The three families who have been staying at the church have gotten to know each other while over the weeks they have all been sleeping there. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Anadia Miguel says her prenatal visit was good. Pedro Miguel shows off ultrasound images, the round shape of the baby’s head plain to see in shades of gray.

“It’s a boy,” he says proudly. “But we are not happy because we don’t have a house for when the baby comes. It’s the only thing we need.”

Anadia Miguel asks why there is no house for her family. Why are more and more asylum seekers arriving at the family shelter? Why do people keep sending them to Maine?

“I wish they could send people to another place,” she says.

The couple are silent for a moment when asked why they were so certain they would find a home in Maine. Pedro Miguel answers.

“Sometimes, when people envision a better place, they think of paradise.”

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