Herve Mwaku Musalu, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, slept on the streets of Portland after arriving in the city in April. Musalu and three other asylum-seeking men are now staying in a hotel in Saco. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

When Herve Mwaku Musalu arrived in Portland this spring from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he went to the city to get help with housing. The shelters were all full.

He was handed a stack of paperwork and told General Assistance could pay for a place to live, but he would have to find it on his own.

“I’m new here and I don’t know where to start,” said Musalu, 27. “I don’t speak the language. I don’t know where to go.”

Speaking through an interpreter, Musalu said he slept outside for nearly two months by bundling up in layers of clothes, often bedding down near the Portland Public Library or the city’s social services office on Forest Avenue.

But his luck changed last week after he spoke at the city’s listening session on homelessness. It was there that he and three other homeless asylum seekers met City Councilors Anna Trevorrow and Victoria Pelletier. The councilors took them out to dinner and fundraised to put them up in a hotel.

The gesture was an emergency, said Trevorrow, who has since launched a GoFundMe to continue supporting the men.


They are among the first asylum seekers in Portland to share what it’s like to be forced to live on the street as an influx of asylum seekers overwhelms the city, where hundreds if not thousands of people cannot find a place to live.

The pizza and hotel rooms were life-changing, though the men still worry about the long term.

“My fear is what if tomorrow they can’t pay for this room?” Musalu said from the motel in Saco where he’s staying. “What if tomorrow nobody contributes to pay for us? I’m scared I will go on the street again.”

Herve Mwaku Musalu, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, shows a video of himself and other asylum seekers walking along a river in Colombia during their journey, mostly on foot, from Brazil to the Mexico-U.S. border. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


It’s unclear how many asylum seekers are sleeping outside in Portland – more than 1,540 have arrived since Jan. 1, according to the latest count by the city.

Portland has been unable to guarantee them shelter since mid-April when a temporary shelter at the Expo reached capacity.


City spokesperson Jessica Grondin said she has not heard that asylum seekers are sleeping outside on a widespread basis and that community groups or pastors usually will help those the city can’t. But in late April, WGME reported that at least 10 families were living on the street with no shelter and limited food.

Serge Asumani, who is president of the Maine Africans Asylum Resource Center, a newly formed Portland nonprofit that provides case management and services for new Mainers, said he has heard of several asylum seekers sleeping outside.

“There are so many of them on the streets,” Asumani said. “The situation is so bad.”

He was working as an interpreter at the city’s event last week when he met the four men: Musalu, Sebastiao Mulumbu Paulo, Loures Kinalele and Kimfuta Mputu Nodo. Asumani has since become their case manager, taking on the work of helping them get food, apply for asylum and look for long-term housing.

Sitting on a bed in a Saco motel, Loures Kinalele, an asylum seeker from Angola, becomes emotional after recounting how men broke into his house in Angola and raped and killed his 25-year-old daughter. Kinalele fled the country after the attack. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


Musalu left the DRC in November 2022, fleeing persecution for his political activism and support for opposition leader Martin Fayulu, who lost a controversial 2018 presidential election, challenged the results and called for protests. Musalu is also a musician and would talk about politics in his music.


“Everything that was happening, I was putting it in songs,” Musalu said. “Everyone knows me and I got targeted … so many times. (The military) kidnapped me. They tortured me.”

He arrived in California in April, then traveled to Portland because a friend’s brother lived there and offered to lend him money for a plane ticket.

They let Musalu stay for one night and then brought him to the social services office, but he said he lost track of them after that.

Herve Mwaku Musalu said he was shot by a soldier in the DRC during a political protest. Musalu’s shoulder has not healed correctly and one of the broken bones needs to be reset. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

He was at Maine Medical Center last week, getting treatment for a bullet wound that he received in his shoulder during a protest in the DRC, when he was given a flyer for the city meeting.

Musalu said his doctor urged him to go. “You have to go. The meeting is very important because they will be talking about homelessness and housing. … Go and tell them about your problem.”

The friends he brought with him – the three other asylum seekers he met while sleeping outside – weren’t so sure.


“I was intimidated,” said Paulo, who is from Angola. “When we came in the room, we saw everyone in the room was white, and we’re Black. We weren’t sure if we were in the right place. We were intimidated, but we said, ‘Let’s just go in and see what will happen.'”


Paulo said he left Angola because of discrimination he faced for being part of the Bakongo ethnic group.

His parents left Angola for the DRC years ago during the Angolan Civil War, and Paulo said that when they returned, they were seen differently. “People from Angola don’t really accept us the same,” he said. “They see us as people from (DRC).”

The Bakongo people speak Kikongo or Lingala, whereas most others in Angola speak Portuguese. “If they see my name and hear my accent, they won’t give me a job,” Paulo said.

When he got involved in social justice protests, he said the military came to his house and beat him, in part because he is Bakongo. His wife, who was pregnant, tried to protect him and fell down, resulting in a miscarriage. “My life started being in danger since that day,” said Paulo, 26.


He left the country in July 2021, arriving in Portland this May. A friend told him it was a place where immigrants might get help.

He slept his first night at the airport, where he overheard some people speaking Lingala. They brought him to the social services office, where he was told the same message: the city could help pay for housing – if he could find it.

Paulo said he often slept near the city’s Family Shelter, outside the library or on Congress Street. He used cardboard to cushion the ground and had a sheet to keep himself warm. During the day he visited a soup kitchen at a local church.

Asylum seekers Sebastiao Mulumbu Paulo, left, and Loures Kinalele, had been sleeping on the streets when they first arrived in Portland. Paulo left Angola in July 2021 after police came to his house and beat him. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

His roommate at the Saco motel, Kinalele, has a similar story: he fled Angola because of his political activism and came to Portland in April. Kinalele said he has slept outside since then.

“I’m limited with English and didn’t know how to start or what to do,” he said.

Nodo, who is also staying with the group in Saco, was traveling to Boston this week for his asylum case and was not available for an interview.



Trevorrow and Pelletier raised enough money last week to put the four men up in a motel through Thursday. Then Trevorrow set up a GoFundMe for the Maine Africans Asylum Resource Center – nearly $3,000 has been raised so far – to continue to pay for their housing.

The center will use any excess money to help additional asylum seekers, she said.

Serge Asumani, president of the Maine Africans Asylum Resource Center, is helping four asylum-seeking men who were sleeping outdoors in Portland after arriving in the city this spring. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

City Manager Danielle West and Department of Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow declined a request for an interview, when asked through Grondin, about the fundraising and if Trevorrow’s efforts as a city councilor would interfere with any work the city is already doing.

Portland has its own fundraising mechanism for asylum seekers in place – raising $85,000 since early April. That money hasn’t been distributed yet, but is expected to help cover expenses at the Expo, Grondin said.

Trevorrow doesn’t see any issue with supporting efforts outside the city’s system.


“This group of four represents an ‘overflow’ demographic that cannot immediately be accommodated into the city’s or our community partners’ available beds,” Trevorrow said. “So the funding is going to support their emergency sheltering while they work to find GA-accepted, longer-term housing.”

Serge Asumani, center, walks across a motel parking lot with Loures Kinalele, left and Sebastiao Mulumbu Paulo, asylum seekers from Angola who are now staying at the motel because of fundraising efforts Portland City Councilors. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


In addition to being an activist and musician, Musalu was a builder and worked in construction in the DRC. He is eager to get his work permit and apply for asylum, though he said it was hard to think about the application while he was sleeping on the streets.

“There was no way I could organize myself,” Musalu said. “My head was not in that place. It was difficult sleeping outside.”

Paulo was an electrician in Angola and wants to continue that career once he gets a work permit. He hopes to find a house or apartment where he can cook and it will be less expensive to stay.

Trevorrow said she’s committed to keeping the group sheltered and she estimated the GoFundMe money could sustain at least another week or two of housing.

“This experience has highlighted for me that we are capable of stepping up and meeting crises moment-to-moment,” she said. “Just when we think we have reached our limit, we find that we can do more.”

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