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Asylum Seekers Find Shelter - and Hope - in Renovated Maine Church
01/21/2014   Reported By: Tom Porter

A former church in downtown Portland is offering new hope to that section of Maine's immigrant population which perhaps faces the toughest challenges - asylum seekers. The building, called Hope House, opened its doors as a non-profit housing and community center last October, but the project's organizers say their work is far from complete. Tom Porter reports.

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A renovated church in Portland is now home to 13 asylum seekers from war-torn countries.

"What's this word? Helpful, generous, kind..."

English teacher Betty Hartley helps a group of immigrants brush up on their English language skills in the newly-renovated basement of Hope House. ESL classes form just one part of the programs and services the organization plans to offer, says Elizabeth Beane.

"We're projected to have some sewing classes start within the next couple of months," she says. "I'm actually going to have an office here so that I can be closer and have a meeting place."

Beane runs the immigrant support program at Hope Acts, the charity behind Hope House. "We'll be offering computer classes and workplace rediness, job readiness, classes when people get closer to that point."

Residents, she says, will also be given access to attorneys to help them with their asylum cases. It's all part of Hope House's two-fold mission, she says, which is to provide asylum-seekers with a safe place to live and hook them up with programs and services that will help get them on their feet.

There are currently 13 residents here, housed in five apartments.

"This is my apartment," says 26-year-old Jean de Dieu (left), as he proudly shows off the three-bedroom apartment he shares with two other young men at Hope House. It's a clean, comfortable, basically-furnished residence. Jean de Dieu - who prefers not to give his last name - is from from Rwanda. His room-mates are from Burundi.

Like many asylum seekers, he left his family back home. But he feels he has found a new one here. "I have a new family, I have a community which is very welcoming," he says. "People are friendly in the community and America. Here, also, in Hope House, we live as a family."

Jean de Dieu, who has a degree in applied sciences, fled Rwanda last May fearing persecution, which he says still goes on in his homeland some 20 years after the genocide which left up to a million people dead. Back home, he was a youth development worker. Here in Maine, he wants to further his studies and dreams one day of getting a PhD.

23-year old Nanouchka from Burundi - who also only gave her first name - is also college-educated. "After my high school in Burundi, I went to study in Uganda," she says. "I did a bachelor degree in international business."

She too wants to return to school here once her asylum case in resolved. Nanouchka says the political situation in Burundi caused her to flee to the United States about four months ago. She ended up in Maine, she says, after hearing about the general assistance funds available to asylum seekers here - funding which is now under threat following a recent proposal by the LePage administration.

Like all Hope House residents, Nanouchka underwent a rigorous interview selection process before getting an apartment.
Only about half of those who applied were successful. "I was lucky," she says.

Tom Porter: "What's it like living here?"

Nanouchka: "It's a house of hope. We have so many friends we made here, we're not feeling lonely. There is even an old woman here, she's like our mom. She gives us advice. We are singing together, cooking together."

"So for a couple of years we've been working with a lot of immigrants, and one of the really challenging issues that they face is around housing," says Allen Ewing-Merrill, the executive director of Hope Acts. Asylum seekers, he says, tend to the most vulnerable of Maine's immigrant population.

"They come from places like Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola," Ewing-Merrill says. They're here on a visa, but they're not refugees. So they show up with a suitcase at the airport, look for a friendly face and usually end up in one of Portland's shelters, or on the couch of a friend."

Ewing-Merrill says Hope Acts was doing what it could to help these people find accommodation and other help. But the idea of a having a residential-come-community center was just a dream - a dream that became a reality thanks to the involvement of a local philanthropist.

"I just started seeing what they were doing, what the struggles were, what the challenges were, and saw that maybe I could play a part in it," says property developer Richard Berman. He purchased the building, which by last year had become a rundown apartment block, and paid for it to be renovated.

Berman declined to say exactly how much of his own money his put into Hope House, but said the final figure was well north of the $420,000 quoted in a recent newspaper article. He leases the building to Hope Acts for free. Philanthropy aside, however, Berman, says there's a strong economic argument behind the project.

"I'm a real estate developer - I'm into business," he says. "And what I see is we need these brothers and sisters that are coming here - this is our only growth in Maine. And these are bright people. I really see it as part of economic development here in Maine."

Here, says Berman, is Maine's opportunity to reverse the so-called "brain drain," which has seen so many of the state's young people head south once they've been educated.

Photos:  Tom Porter


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