Maine finds homes for several hundred African asylum seekers

Thierry Malasa

Thierry Malasa pauses while describing the harrowing journey that led his family from the Congo to Maine, as the family prepared to move out of the Portland Expo, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, in Portland, Maine. The state’s largest city is racing to find homes for dozens of African asylum seekers as a temporary shelter closes on Thursday. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

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PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Most African asylum seekers who made the perilous journey through Central America to the southern U.S. border and flooded shelters in Maine’s largest city have new homes.

Thursday marked the closing of an emergency shelter set up in a basketball arena in Portland after several hundred African immigrants arrived from Texas. All told, the city has found homes for more than 200 people since the first families arrived in June.

The arrival of families fleeing Angola, Congo and other countries showed that it’s not just Central Americans making the journey to the southern U.S. border. An unprecedented number of Africans traveled the same route.

Maine is home to thousands of African newcomers but the arrival of so many at the same time overwhelmed local shelters in June.

At its peak capacity over the summer, the Portland Expo held nearly 300 asylum seekers sleeping on cots on the basketball court. But a coalition of groups has steered most of the new arrivals to homes, and on Thursday, the last few dozen packed up their belongings.

Because of a housing shortage in southern Maine, many were sent to communities miles away from the shelter in Brunswick, Bath and Lewiston. More than 40 families also opened their homes to provide temporary housing to the newcomers. Since the newcomers are not allowed to work for 180 days while seeking asylum, the state’s recently opened General Assistance program will provide most of them with vouchers for housing, food and medicine.

Several parents moving their families said their children are still traumatized by the difficult journey to Maine.

“By the grace of God, my family made it here. But the kids still have that stuff in their brains,” Lidia Maria Afonso, of Luanda, Angola, said Thursday through an interpreter as she and her three children awaited a ride to their new home 25 miles (40 kilometers) north, in Brunswick.

Some families expressed fear about being relocated from the busy city to towns where the vast woods that are part of Maine’s identity could trigger bad memories from their journeys. They recalled seeing fellow asylum seekers fall to their deaths, get swept away by rivers, starve to death and get bitten by venomous snakes in Panama’s infamous Darien Gap, a jungle that’s known for dangerous wildlife and bandits.

“We are really thankful and appreciative. Really, God bless you. But we also want you to understand what it was like in the forest. There were people who went with us who died. We don’t want to go again to a spot like that. It’s just too difficult,” Thierry Malasa, who fled Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, said through an interpreter as his family prepared to move to a wooded home in Scarborough.

Nsine Bodiko, who fled a massacre in his village in Congo, showed images on his phone of thick forests and boulders from his journey through Central America that looked a lot like Maine’s wooded wilderness.

“Our heads are in such shock,” said Bodiko, whose wife gave birth on the journey, through an interpreter.

As the asylum seekers attempt to settle into new lives and homes, part of the struggle is putting the horrors they have endured behind them.

We hope “to be able to forget the traumas from the forest,” Bodiko said.

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