Sonia Pedro, center, and Mimosa Doneta portion out meals in the community kitchen at the Nasson Community Center in Sanford on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The three women walked into the small kitchen at the Nasson Community Center in Sanford and went straight to work preparing a meal.

Sonia Pedro, Nketo Nguyame and Mimosa Doneta pulled buckets of whole fish from the freezer to thaw, then put large pots of water on the stove to boil. They unloaded grocery bags, covering the counter with tomatoes, onions, eggplant, garlic and packages of dried fumbwa leaves, a type of wild spinach found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola.

On the menu for the day: boiled pig feet, fried tilapia and fumbwa, a thick stew made from the dried leaves, red palm oil and peanut butter that is served in the DRC and northern Angola.

Nketo Nguyame makes sure the fumbwa – or wild spinach – is clean before putting it into a pot. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For Pedro, who came to Maine from Angola with her husband and two children to seek asylum, cooking these dishes and sharing a meal with her community is familiar, even if the setting was completely foreign until weeks ago.

During the first week of May, more than two dozen families arrived at Sanford City Hall, quickly overwhelming the resources of a small city that had not yet seen asylum seekers arrive in large numbers as they have in Portland, where at least 1,540 have arrived since Jan. 1. City staff scrambled to get 28 families signed up for General Assistance, into local hotel rooms, and connected with schools and service organizations. Others had to be turned away, with no more space to house them.

Local groups, churches and volunteers jumped in to help wherever they could, often ignoring negative comments on social media while trying to overcome language barriers and understand people’s needs. The result, local leaders say, has been an extraordinary response to an unprecedented situation in the community.


“We’re impressed with the way the community has come together to help folks,” said Carter Friend, executive director of York County Community Action Corp., which is helping the families find long-term housing and other services.

In the weeks since, there have been regular planning meetings attended by more than 60 people to talk about everything from transportation to English classes to coordinating donations and volunteers. A separate weekly meeting focuses solely on identifying housing options. So far, long-term housing has been found for nearly 20 families.

Asylum seekers help move belongings onto a trailer at the Sanford Inn on June 12. The families were going to temporarily stay at a local church. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Last week, those meetings became even more critical when the families had to leave the local hotels because their emergency housing vouchers ran out and their regular monthly vouchers only cover the cost of a few nights. A local church stepped in to open a private, temporary shelter through July 2. City Manager Steven Buck said the city worked with the church to approve the emergency plan so the families had some shelter before they move into long-term housing.

“As a city, we’re trying to manage those original 28 families and have had reasonable progress,” he said.


Many volunteers and organizations like the Nasson Community Center felt compelled to help the moment they saw asylum seekers waiting outside City Hall for General Assistance appointments.


Emily Sheffield and Jennifer Davie were driving through downtown Sanford on the Friday that most families arrived in town. City Hall was closed for the day and the asylum seekers – many of whom had gotten rides from Portland – were sitting outside with nowhere to go. Sheffield, executive director of the Nasson Community Center, said she and Davie couldn’t just drive by and do nothing.

Emily Sheffield, the director of the Nasson Community Center, center right, and Jennifer Davie, Sheffield’s assistant, talk with Maynor Campos, who volunteers as a translator, Sonia Pedro, Nketo Nguyame and Mimosa Doneta about the plan for distributing the meals that the three women had prepared for their fellow asylum seekers in the community kitchen. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When they pulled into the parking lot, they were immediately approached by asylum seekers who were confused about how to get help and uncertain of where they would sleep that night. Many families included small children, babies and pregnant women. Some were starving, Sheffield said.

“They knew we weren’t going to leave them there stranded,” she said.

Sheffield and Davie, her assistant at the community center, helped connect them with city staff, who came in on their day off to help, and then went to get food for the families. They haven’t stopped helping since.

That same day, Crystalann Carter, a nurse who lives nearby, started seeing posts in a Facebook group for Sanford residents about the people outside City Hall. Some of the commenters questioned whether the asylum seekers should be in Maine and why they were getting assistance. She heard that some passersby were yelling at the asylum seekers.

“I thought to myself, these people literally left everything they were comfortable with for a slight possibility of freedom,” she said. “They didn’t know what they were walking into.”


After meeting some of the asylum seekers, Carter started a Facebook group for people in the community who also wanted to help. They have donated food, clothing and other basic items the families staying at the Sanford Inn needed. When one of the men needed a printer to help others with paperwork, the group helped track one down.

Maynor Campos greets Jennifer Davie in the community kitchen at the Nasson Community Center in Sanford on Thursday. Campos volunteers as a Portuguese translator. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

During the first few days, Maynor Campos and his husband went to City Hall to meet the asylum seekers and see how they could help. Campos speaks Portuguese and his husband speaks French, so they were able to help translate. Campos, who is originally from Guatemala and works in property management, has continued to volunteer as a translator.

Davie – the fourth generation in her family to live in Sanford – is not at all surprised that so many people have been eager to welcome their new neighbors. She has seen the negative comments online and at meetings but doesn’t think they reflect all the work that is happening.

“My belief is there is far more good happening,” she said. “But it’s not on display the way the negative is on display.”


Almost immediately after the families moved into hotels, the Nasson Community Center opened its kitchen to provide a space for them to cook the meals that they wanted to eat – not American food.


Sheffield and Davie helped shop for ingredients, and tracked down fumbwa leaves and other items not commonly found in American grocery stores. They applied for grants and secured donations to cover the cost so the families would have at least one meal each week that they didn’t have to worry about paying for. When the asylum seekers described the long-handled wooden paddles they like to cook with, the man who handles props for the community center’s theater offered to make them.

Mimosa Doneta washes and prepares fish for frying in the community kitchen at the Nasson Community Center on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

As the families move into apartments, the community kitchen will continue to operate. Davie said it’s important to make sure the families have enough food and access to culturally appropriate ingredients.

Thursday morning, Davie pulled her car up to the side door of the community center to drop off Pedro, Nguyame, Doneta and a couple of their children. The kids bolted through the kitchen to the adjoining gym, where they were attending basketball camp.

Davie, who is working as a housing navigator, made sure the women had what they needed, then rushed back out to shuttle other families to apartments to sign leases. Later in the day, she would bring a mother and her son from the temporary shelter to meet a local woman who offered them rooms in her house for the next year.

Pedro, who worked in human resources and administration in Angola, is the leader in the kitchen. She cooks every week, sometimes bringing different people with her. Some weeks, they cooked for as many as 125 people. Now they’re cooking for around 30.

Pedro said it was important to her to take on the task of organizing the weekly meal as a way to give back to the volunteers and organizations that have helped them. She likes working with people and enjoys being organized, she said through a translator.


From left, Nketo Nguyame, Sonia Pedro and Mimosa Doneta, using a large wooden paddle made by the community center’s theater prop manager, cook a meal for some of their fellow asylum seekers. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

With occasional instructions from Pedro, Nguyame prepared the fumbwa leaves, then chopped eggplant and other vegetables for the stew. Doneta focused on the meats, first boiling the pig feet, then preparing the fish to fry. They took turns using the paddles to stir the fumbwa as it simmered, filling the kitchen with a rich scent of vegetables, spices and peanuts.

As they worked, they talked about which families had found housing and who was still waiting. Pedro just moved into an apartment with her family. Doneta, who came from Angola with her two children, hopes they’ll have a place of their own soon so they can leave the church shelter.

“In the beginning, we were afraid of how long it would take,” Pedro said through a translator. “We’re thankful to everyone we are getting settled and getting a lot of help.”

Nguyame, who came from the DRC with her husband and two children, moved into an apartment a week ago. It feels great to be there, she said through a translator.

“I can go to bed happy.”

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