Ninette Irabaruta first came to Maine in 2012 from Burundi when she was 21. In the decade since, she has earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, gotten married, bought a house and worked numerous jobs. Currently, she is the director of public policy and advocacy at United Way of Southern Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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She arrived in January 2012 from the Central African country of Burundi, alone, with plans to seek asylum. Her mother and father had been killed separately years earlier in the country’s civil war. She’d watched others around her die and feared that would be her fate.

She knew nothing about this cold corner of the United States, only whispers that it was welcoming. She spoke little English and had no money, just hope that opportunity would find her. She was 21.

In the decade and a year since, Ninette Irabaruta has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, married and bought a home. She has served on numerous nonprofit boards and is now director of public policy and advocacy at United Way of Southern Maine. She has lived the American Dream.

“I do feel a responsibility to try to live the life that other people didn’t get the chance to,” she said. “When I think about my parents or the kids I played with when we were little who aren’t here anymore, all of that pushes me to be better every day and to live my life for others.”

As asylum seekers continue to arrive in Maine in great numbers, Irabaruta serves as both resource and role model, yet even she knows that not everyone will achieve her kind of success. It took her years to feel stable here. She worked hard, yes. But she also had good fortune.

Massive barriers slow down the process of making a new life. So much of the first months, and often years, are spent waiting. Waiting to find a place to live. Waiting to be allowed to get a job. The longest wait of all is to learn whether a court will approve your asylum case or deport you. Permission to stay permanently is far from guaranteed.


And while the experiences of others who arrived before them can be instructive, newcomers are facing ever greater hurdles, including growing backlogs of asylum cases and an increasingly short supply of affordable housing. They may have to spend more time in shelters or hotels while receiving less assistance from municipalities, such as Portland, that are overwhelmed by demand.

And many of those who came before them are still in limbo, in a country that remains unfamiliar, with a future that’s uncertain.

Rodrigue Mwenge, right, helps Josee Kasa build a resume at the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine’s welcome center in Brunswick on April 5. Both Mwenge and Kasa are asylum seekers from Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mwenge came to the U.S. in 2016 and has worked at the welcome center since 2019. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The number of asylum seekers awaiting hearings before judges in federal immigration courts has grown – from 100,000 cases at the end of the 2012 fiscal year to more than 787,000 last year. These are individuals applying for what’s known as defensive asylum, meaning they will be removed from the country unless they apply. People who arrive at the southern border fit this category.

Another 778,084 asylum seekers are waiting for hearings before United States Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers within the Department of Homeland Security, according to federal data analyzed by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. These affirmative asylum cases involve individuals who have come to the U.S., legally or illegally, and apply because they fear returning to their home countries.

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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In the Boston immigration court, where all Maine cases are heard, more than 113,000 cases are pending. The average wait time is four-plus years, but some interviewed for this story already have waited more than twice that long. The Boston court has an especially poor record of approving cases, a fact that was highlighted in a report last year by the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

“It’s really a human rights violation, when you think about the consequences,” said Anna Welch, founding director of the law school clinic. She estimates that as many at 8,000 to 10,000 people living in Maine still have pending cases. “I have a trial coming up from someone who has been waiting since 2016 and has been separated from their spouse. The spouse just recently passed away. That’s just one of so many stories.”


Luc Samuel Kuanzambi came to Maine in 2016 on a medical visa for his infant daughter, who needed a liver transplant. He and his wife had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo and were then living in South Africa. He has since sought asylum here, been a cultural ambassador for Hannaford and become a leading advocate for New Mainers.

Luc Samuel Kuanzambi is surrounded by family photos in his Portland home. He has been waiting for permanent legal status for seven years. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Like Irabaruta, he’s a story of success, though even after seven years he does not yet have permanent legal status.

He and his family first flew to Nebraska for his daughter’s care. But he couldn’t work and didn’t have money to pay for the transplant. Five months later, on a hot summer night, they arrived in Maine, where he had a cousin.

The Kuanzambis had nothing. But they were welcomed at the family shelter, where they found other African immigrants. And before long, they met doctors, first in Portland, and then Boston, who agreed to perform the transplant at no cost.

His daughter is healthy and they are settled in Maine. Kuanzambi has been paying that kindness forward ever since.

The hardest part, he said, was accepting assistance before they were on firm ground. He and his wife, Paulette, now have steady work. They never wanted to be a burden.


Since becoming active in his community, Kuanzambi said he’s noticed that municipalities and advocacy groups tend to pour their energy into helping new arrivals only to move on once they have found housing or work or education. That has left many asylum seekers after a few months feeling all but invisible, left to figure out life here for themselves.

“The group dynamic that existed in the first place has waned. People are scattered,” he said. “Most have gotten work permits and are just trying to make a living.”

In other words, he said, they’ve become Mainers. Not by ancestry, by circumstance.

In a state that has recorded more deaths than births in recent years, they know they can help the economy  but the roots they are working hard to put down could be yanked out in a moment by the courts.

Irabaruta’s first home was Florence House in Portland, which at that time was a temporary women’s shelter.

“When I was there, I realized that misery is everywhere,” she explained. “It didn’t matter if I was in America or in Burundi. There was still misery, still poverty.”


Not everyone who comes to Maine seeking asylum spends time in a shelter, but that is often the first stop. Affordable and subsidized housing were in short supply when Irabaruta arrived and is even more so now.

That problem was amplified in the summer of 2019, when a large number of immigrants arrived in Portland within a short period, forcing the city, which had no more shelter space available, to temporarily house newcomers at the Portland Expo.

The pandemic slowed things, but New Mainers are arriving in even greater numbers now. Many have stayed in hotel rooms for months, awaiting more permanent placement. With shelters filled and people pouring in, the city reopened the Expo last month.

Benedita Kakhuba chats with Diana Krauss, from Midcoast Literacy, at a “Conversation Cafe,” held at the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine’s welcome center in Brunswick on April 19. The monthly event, put on by Midcoast Literacy, is held as a way to get asylum seekers living locally to converse in English with community members. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Benedita Kakhuba was 19 when she arrived in 2019 . Her parents had come two years earlier from Angola, so she didn’t have to stay in the shelter. But she’s still waiting for her asylum case to be resolved.

Like many others, she flew from Angola to Brazil and started the now-familiar land journey north to the U.S. She won’t share many details.

This is common for asylum seekers, according to Welch, for two reasons. The first is that U.S. immigration judges are looking for credibility. Any story inconsistencies can be problematic. The other reason, Welch said, is trauma. It’s a lot to ask people to relive some of their worst life experiences.


Kakhuba’s first year was tough, even with family here. She spoke four languages – Portuguese, French, Lingala and Spanish – but English was new. In the 14 months until she could work, she spent as much time as she could learning English at Merrymeeting Adult Education.

Her first job was as a translator for Bowdoin College. Then for Wild Oats, a popular Brunswick bakery. Both treated her well, but she wanted a job in which she could connect more with others.

Now 24, Kakhuba works at the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine’s welcome center in Brunswick and takes college classes two days a week. She is committed to making a life here, exiled from her homeland, in a place where she is in a minority.

“Everyone has their own experience about how they’re adapting,” she said. “A lot of New Mainers, they feel intimidated because it’s a very white state. As a college student, I see sometimes I’m the only person of color and I’m not sure everyone is aware of how we are feeling.”

The town of Brunswick settled dozens of families in 2019 and as many as 60 more families will come to move into a new housing complex this summer. Most will be served through the welcome center, where Kakhuba works with other asylum seekers.

Jonathan Pendeza was one of many asylum seekers recently laid off from Abbott Laboratories.


Benedita Kakhuba and Jonathan Pendeza at the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine’s welcome center in Brunswick. Both Kakhuba and Pendeza are asylum seekers themselves and they now help recent arrivals to Brunswick. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Pendeza, 22, first came to Maine from the Democratic Republic of Congo on a student visa in 2021. He didn’t start college classes as he had planned and when his visa expired, he applied for asylum. His parents had been forced out of their home and said it wasn’t safe for him to return.

The legal process has left him confused and anxious.

“You are kind of doubting if you’re getting your life better and may be able to start investing in something, but you’re not sure if you can do it,” he said.

Rodrigue Mwenge, another colleague from the DRC, has similar anxiety.

Mwenge, 36, came to the U.S. with a large group in 2016 to attend a church conference in North Carolina. But he had no plan to go home.

He ended up in Maine because friends said there were opportunities.


He hasn’t heard from officials about his case since he filed his asylum paperwork more than six years ago, and questions whether he’ll be fully accepted by his fellow Mainers without legal status.

“I’m paying my rent, I’m paying for my school myself, but there isn’t going to be a lot of investment in asylum seekers if they don’t think we are staying,” he said.

Kakhuba, who came to the U.S. after Mwenge, recently got a date to appear in immigration court next year.  Her parents, who came in 2017, have yet to hear any word about their case.

The two types of asylum cases in this country are handled differently. Affirmative asylum cases involve people who have come to the U.S. and who apply for asylum through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services before the country initiates plans to deport them.

Defensive cases are filed once people have been told they will be deported, as occurs at the southern border.

Affirmative asylum interviews are administrative and no one argues against the asylum seeker. In defensive cases, a government lawyer argues that the applicant should not stay.


Asylum seekers do better in both cases if they have lawyers, according to data analyzed by the Syracuse clearinghouse. But they face major barriers.

In Maine, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and the clinic at UMaine Law provide services but they are limited.

Immigration lawyers are in short supply. Asylum seekers also need money to pay for them.

“You have a right to an attorney in immigration court, but it’s at your own expense. It’s not like if you were charged with a crime and couldn’t afford a lawyer,” said Welch, the clinic director.

In 2018, according to the clearinghouse analysis of federal data, only 9% of asylum seekers had legal representation. By 2022, 31% had lawyers.

The overall approval rate for asylum seekers, which was just 30% in the Trump administration, was up to 46% for fiscal year 2022, according to the clearinghouse. Still, more than half of those who apply for asylum are being denied, although rates vary greatly depending on country of origin.


In early January, the Biden administration effectively cut off the ability to seek asylum for Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans. Venezuelans were cut off last October. That is helping with the backlog. Additionally, the end of the pandemic-era rule known as Title 42 is expected to slow entries.

“We got asylum for a client last fall who had been waiting since 2014,” Welch said. “Within 24 hours of that grant, she was a different woman. You could see it. And she was already an amazing, resilient woman.”

Bess came to the U.S. in 2014, and is still awaiting resolution of her asylum case nearly a decade later.

Because her husband escaped from jail in the Democratic Republic of Congo and because their cases are pending, she asked that only her first name be used.

She still remembers her first night in Portland waiting outside for hours in the rain with her young children to try to get into the family shelter.

“That first day, I cried,” she said. “That really scared us.”


Bess and her family slowly found their way to help, including from State Street Church in Portland, whose volunteers have assisted dozens of families. She had her fourth child in 2017 and her fifth last month.

Before her youngest was born, Bess had become a team leader at Abbott, where she had been working for 15 months. Her husband works the overnight shift at a Spurwink Services residential home for adolescents. He had a more skilled and better paying job in the DRC doing maintenance at an airport but getting a similar job here would require additional school and training – and he needed to provide for his family.

They both waited more than a year to be cleared to work. When they first found an apartment, they had no furniture and slept on the floor.

Bess said learning English was harder than she thought.

“I was shy, I thought people would laugh at me,” she said. “But I’m trying my best.”

Even so, she said it’s hard to feel fully settled without permanent legal status.


“It seems my case keeps getting pushed down,” she said. “I can’t say they don’t care. They know what they are doing. But we hear about people who are getting their asylum and we are still waiting.”

Asked whether she ever regrets leaving home, Bess said no.

“We need to be in the safest place for our family,” she said. “And our kids, they can have a better life.”

Martha Stein, executive director of Hope Acts, one of many nonprofits that assist asylum seekers in Maine, said the entire system constantly seems on the verge of collapse.

“The sheer number of people coming, with the housing crisis we have, with the broken federal immigration we have, it all just trickles down to us,” she said.

When Stein started at the agency in 2018, there were two full-time staff members. Now, there are 10.


“We just can’t keep up, but no one can,” she said.

This is one reason asylum seekers who have been in Maine for years feel compelled to help new arrivals. They know resources are scarce. They have lived it.

Lazare Sonda, left, sits next to Charlens Aurelien as they chat with two volunteers from Midcoast Literacy during a, “Conversation Cafe,” held at the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine’s welcome center in Brunswick. The monthly event gives asylum seekers living locally a chance to converse in English with community members. Sonda lives in Brunswick but is originally from the DRC and Aurelien lives in Topsham, but is from Haiti. Both men have been in Maine for about a year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Everyone is hoping to advance their life, to change their life in a very positive way, because that’s what we hear,” Kakhuba said. “But the reality is different. You aren’t always able to do those things.”

Kakhuba said she has seen widespread depression among recent arrivals.

Yes, there are plenty of job opportunities, but not always for newcomers or commensurate with their skills.

Kakhuba’s father was an architect in Angola for more than 20 years. To find a similar job here, she said, would mean going back to school to repeat his training. That’s a lot to ask of someone in his mid-50s.


“We have a lot of New Mainers who have a lot of potential and who are willing to help in their field, but they are not being able to perform that,” she said. “After so many years, they start losing hope.”

Even years into life in Maine, it can be hard to be in a place with so few residents from abroad, said the crew working at Brunswick’s welcome center. When almost everyone else is white, you always stand out.

“As a New Mainer, it’s not like you try to isolate yourself, but sometimes you feel a little isolated because people don’t always interact with you,” Kakhuba said.

“When it comes to the community, they don’t always approach you,” said Pendeza. “They may not even know what country you’re from, or they think Africa is all the same.”

Mwenge said he tries not to think about potential racism, even though he knows it’s out there.

It’s best to “think about your part,” he said. “People respect you because of what you’re doing, not who you are.”


Irabaruta said she used to not like to share the story of her journey to a new life in Maine, but now it feels like therapy for her. The more she is out there in the public, the more others see a path to success. She talks about the value of education, of learning the language of your new home – and more broadly of going out into the community rather than expecting it to come to you.

Ruweda Ali, right, hugs Ninette Irabaruta as they greet each other at a Biddeford community Iftar at Southern Maine Health Care on April 20. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

She said she learned that early lesson from a friend of her father, who fled Burundi in 1993.

“That was his advice: Don’t just settle in the Burundian community,” she said. “Yes, keep them, but if you want to succeed, you have to step up, step away.”

In her work at United Way, she has many discussions about how the state should help New Mainers more. She always calls it an investment. Why wouldn’t you want to invest in people?

Lately, she’s found herself outside of southern Maine, spreading that message to communities that have yet to see many New Mainers.

“I think you have to go into those communities and have a conversation,” she said. “It takes time for people to adapt. We as humans are always afraid of change. We’re always afraid of the others.

“But if you have a conversation, if you go, you start to open the door a little bit.”

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