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Read the Long Way Home series

Joshua Mutshaila slept in a shelter when he first arrived in Portland. Now he is studying political science at the University of Southern Maine.

Claudette Ndayininahaze could only get a cleaning job during her first years in Maine, despite extensive work experience and a degree in business administration. Now she runs a nonprofit to try to smooth the transition for other immigrant women and families.

Apphia Kamanda was one of the first students at Common Threads of Maine, a nonprofit that teaches skills needed for textile jobs. Now she leads the sewing school and teaches classes in multiple languages.

David Ngandu worked as a doctor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He’s trying to be one again here.

They are among thousands of African immigrants who – often at great personal risk – fled perils they knew all too well at home for an uncertain future in this country. They settled in Maine, a state with a population that is 94% white and the nation’s oldest, and where businesses are increasingly struggling to find workers. They got multiple jobs, but their skills were still underutilized. Slowly and painstakingly, they built new lives, while often looking for ways to help others who came after them. In turn, they brought new life to their communities.

The Press Herald talked to a diverse group of people who came here from Africa about how they see their futures in Maine – and Maine’s future with more immigrants in it.


David Ngandu was a doctor in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now works as a research associate for Maine Health. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Since 2022, David Ngandu has been running walk-up COVID-19 testing clinics at community organizations for immigrants and collecting data for research on their attitudes about testing.

“We can analyze the data and come up with some results and recommendations that we could make for the future, in case another pandemic breaks out,” he said. That could make a difference, he said, and “improve people’s lives, especially the underserved population in Portland.”

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 project was a good fit for Ngandu, 39. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he studied medicine in Russia and became a doctor in his home country. He returned to Russia to complete a residency program in general surgery, and decided to seek asylum in the United States when he was done rather than go back to the conditions in the DRC. He arrived in Portland in 2016 and spent his first week in the Oxford Street Shelter before he found a place to stay.

To work as a doctor in the United States, Ngandu needs to pass the required board exams and then be accepted into a residency program. First, at Southern Maine Community College, he enrolled in an EMT training program for immigrants with medical backgrounds. As soon as he got his work authorization, he got jobs as a phlebotomist, a medical interpreter for MaineHealth and a mental health counselor. Last year, he moved into the job he holds now, as a MaineHealth research associate working at the testing sites.

Now married with two children, he owns an apartment building in Westbrook. His asylum application is still pending, and he knows firsthand how long and hard the process of settling in is. So he often helps other immigrants look for housing and make sense of forms. He got a certificate as a tax preparer to help them with taxes.

He knows the demand for more doctors in Maine and wants to work in his field again. It’s a long and costly process, but he is studying for the board exams.


“I want to challenge myself,” he said.

And to help fill a need in his new home.

Jocelyne Kamikazi has lived in Maine since 2006 and is now a U.S. citizen. She started Burundi Star Coffee in 2020 in hopes of helping farmers in her native country receive fair prices for their product. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Burundi Star Coffee had been closed for 30 minutes, but customers kept walking through the door for a snack or a conversation with the owners. Jocelyne Kamikazi and Andre Nzeyimana recently opened a second location at Unum’s campus on Congress Street, but their original spot on St. John Street is still a neighborhood hub. The menu includes both avocado toast and African pastries called sambousas. Customers can pick up free copies of the multilingual newspaper Amjambo Africa. A flyer on the wall advertised a French-speaking meetup.

“People, when they come here, they feel like it’s a little vacation,” said Kamikazi. “They hear many languages. They can come listen to the French music. They can learn about the geography. For the African community, they feel like they’re going home.”

The couple is from Burundi, and both of their families were in the coffee industry. He worked in foreign currency exchange, and she was a bookkeeper for nonprofits. Civil war forced them to leave with their 4-year-old son, and they hoped to go to Canada because they would be able to speak French there. But when they flew to New Hampshire, Jocelyne was pregnant and began to have contractions. To avoid the risk of further travel, they rerouted to Portland, where the baby was born a few months later.

Over the years, she worked in group homes and then as an interpreter at Maine Medical Center, and he had jobs as a car salesman, a driving instructor and a truck driver. They raised their two sons, now 16 and 20, and bought a home in Westbrook.


They were granted asylum in 2009 and became U.S. citizens in 2015. In 2018, Kamikazi visited her family’s coffee farm and saw how many local people had abandoned the industry because they could no longer make ends meet. Back in Maine, she started her coffee business with imports from her home country, and they hope to eventually become direct importers and guarantee growers a better price.

“The point was to bring the awareness of unfair prices being paid to farmers,” Kamikazi said.

She studied at Portland Adult Education, then Southern Maine Community College, then the University of Southern Maine. In 2019, she graduated with a degree in business management and a minor in accounting. Her father, who died last year, was glad she’d gotten into the coffee business because she wasn’t interested at all when she was younger.

“He didn’t believe it,” she said, laughing.

Since they arrived 17 years ago, Greater Portland has become more diverse, with more Burundian families.

“When we first came here, we saw the Jewish community getting together, the Italian Heritage Center,” said Nzeyimana. “Maybe, who knows, we’ll have a Burundi Heritage Center. Everybody needs to belong somewhere.”


Apphia Kamanda was a fashion designer in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now is co-director of Common Threads of Maine, which trains many immigrants to work in the local textile industry. Apphia is wearing a dress that she designed and made. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Apphia Kamanda’s father wanted her to go into medicine. But when she learned to sew, her friends begged her for outfits for their dolls like she made for hers.

“I was feeling something pushing me to a different direction,” she said.

Kamanda eventually earned a degree in fashion design and opened her own studio in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She and her husband moved to Angola for a safer life, but dangerous conditions in both countries prompted them to seek asylum in the United States. Kamanda was pregnant with the first of their two children when they arrived in Portland in 2011, and the couple stayed with friends for a month or two before they moved into their own apartment. They were granted asylum in 2015 and are now permanent residents. At a ceremony in a couple of weeks, they’ll both become naturalized citizens.

“We were really welcome in Maine,” she said. “Just thinking about people in other states, they don’t have what we have in Maine.”

Kamanda was one of the first students at what is now called Common Threads of Maine, a nonprofit that teaches the skills needed to get a job in the local textile industry. She worked at American Roots in Westbrook, Sea Bags in South Portland and Angel Rox in Biddeford before she returned to Common Threads as a sewing instructor. In 2021, she became its co-director.

Most students at Common Threads are immigrants. They complete a free, intensive 12-week class. Kamanda teaches them how to use industrial sewing machines, work with fabrics used by local companies and create basic patterns. She often translates for students who speak French, Lingala or Portuguese.


Many graduates go on to work at American Roots, Angel Rox and Sea Bags. Kamanda, 39, still designs wedding outfits and custom clothing, and she mentors students who want to start their own businesses.

“When you give to others, it’s like a secret to happiness,” she said. “When you see from the beginning, where they start, and when they finish the class, where they are, it just makes me really happy.”

Joshua Mutshaila is a student at the University of Southern Maine. He plans to go to law school and work in public policy. Joshua is also very involved with his church, and helps out at the weekly food pantry at First Assembly of God in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Joshua Mutshaila is a very busy 21-year-old.

He just finished his junior year at the University of Southern Maine, where he is pursuing a double major in criminology and political science. He is studying for the LSAT and works part time as a clerk at a local law firm. He lives with his family and helps take care of his younger siblings. And he spends all day Saturday volunteering at a food pantry at his Cumberland Avenue church.

He stays busy, he said, because he has big dreams. “I want to go to the White House and change something.”

Mutshaila was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but his family moved to South Africa for more opportunity when he was a child. He lived there until he was 15, when xenophobia and crime prompted his parents to pursue a new life in the United States. They are still hoping to be granted asylum.


He had never been homeless or eaten in a soup kitchen, but he spent his first night in Portland in 2017 sleeping on a thin mat at the city’s family shelter. His older brother saw his tears and told him, “It’s going to get better. Just wait.”

He started attending Casco Bay High School, and his family soon moved into their first Portland apartment.

Now, he wants to get a law degree or a master’s degree in public policy – or both – and maybe become a legislative attorney. He’d like to write a book about changing negative thoughts to positive ones.

Mutshaila said his peers often talk about moving to bigger and busier places. But he likes the slower pace and friendliness here.

“The conversation that tends to happen is, ‘I want to leave Maine. It’s boring. Nothing happens here,'” he said. “That’s the whole point. Maine is safe. Maine is great.”

Claudette Ndayininahaze is the co-founder and executive director of In Her Presence, a nonprofit that empowers immigrant women and families. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When Claudette Ndayininahaze started a yoga class for women eight years ago, she wasn’t planning to grow it into a nonprofit that supports immigrant women and families in a myriad of ways.


Today, In Her Presence offers a wide array of help, including English tutoring, technology classes, job placement and wellness programs. Recently, it has partnered with Mercy Hospital to house pregnant women now living in shelters.

Ndayininahaze, 56, is co-founder and executive director, one of only two full-time employees. The outcomes are worth the hard work, she said. “When I see a woman succeeding, that’s my joy. A woman taking a leadership role, a woman taking confidence. Even a small step. It doesn’t need to be a big step.”

She is originally from Burundi, where she worked for many years as the national sales manager for Heineken, and also was deeply involved with the Girl Scouts. She had to leave the country when she was targeted for her volunteer work in human rights. Ndayininahaze arrived in the U.S. on the first day of 2011. Later that year, her three children and her husband joined her in Maine. She was granted asylum in 2013 and became a citizen in 2019. Her husband is now a French teacher; her children have master’s degrees.

Despite her college education and the career she built in Burundi, Ndayininahaze struggled to find work here at first. Her first job was in housekeeping. Later, working as a cultural broker at Opportunity Alliance, a Cumberland County nonprofit, she saw how women acted as pilots for their families as they navigated their new home. She wanted to help.

“I said, ‘Someone needs to stand up and support the community.’ And that’s how In Her Presence was born.”

As the state has become more diverse, In Her Presence has broadened its scope. It now helps companies to create materials for intercultural workplaces and develop mentoring and shadowing programs.


“Maine has changed a lot, but we do also have a way to go,” said Ndayininahaze. “We are not there yet, but the mindset is coming, it is changing.”

Marcel Selemani works for Maine Equal Justice connecting immigrants to good jobs with benefits. He also is trying to launch a clothing business based on his first menswear designs. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Marcel Selemani was always interested in science, math and business. He studied economics in college.

But it didn’t give him the feeling he’d once had as a boy watching his grandfather work as a tailor. So he started sketching clothes that reminded him of the snip of scissors.

“It was like a pressure inside my mind, my heart. You have to do this,” he said.

In 2019, he starting bringing those designs to a Portland shop to turn them into menswear samples: a jacket, a button-down shirt, a pair of pants. The pandemic put his production plans on hold, but now he is looking for partners to relaunch the business.

“That’s my dream,” he said. “My American dream.”


Selemani, 49, is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he came to the U.S. in 2016. In the DRC, he worked in logistics for an airline. He sought a safer life in South Africa, where he worked in refugee resettlement for the United Nations, but violence and xenophobia there prompted him to migrate to the United States.

He got a scholarship to a university in Tennessee and spent a year studying English there. When the scholarship ran out, a friend told him about the General Assistance program in Maine, which offered more support than what was available to him in Tennessee. Selemani decided to move to Portland and apply for asylum here. He lived in the Oxford Street Shelter for six weeks before he was able to rent a room, and volunteered at the family shelter until he could work. Once he could, he got a paid position there.

He was soon known around the shelter and community as Papa Marcel. For four years there, he helped families apply for General Assistance, find English classes, get their children into school, look for housing. He is now a peer workforce navigator at Maine Equal Justice, where he helps immigrants get jobs with health insurance and other benefits.

He sees how much businesses struggle to find workers and how eager New Mainers are to fill the openings.

Selemani met his wife at church in Maine, and they now live in South Portland with their two sons. “Our diamonds,” he calls the boys. He is raising his family in a state that is more diverse than when he got here.

“We are sharing, merging our cultures. That’s beautiful,” he said. “In my language (Swahili), we say when two ideas collide, there’s light everywhere. Our behaviors will be enlightened.”

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