The City Welcoming Hundreds of Refugees Right Now!

Even as the official numbers of refugee arrivals to the U.S. plummet, Portland, Maine, shows that there is more than one way to welcome refugees fleeing war and violence.

Hundreds of refugee asylum seekers who have made an improbable and incredible journey from Africa to South America and our southern border have made their way to Portland.

And this city, capital of state with an aging population and a shrinking workforce, is opening its arms to asylum seekers from the war-wracked Democratic Republic of Congo. And more asylum seekers, who are in the U.S. legally, continue to arrive.

Video by Tom Bell

Portland is an example of what can be done right now to help refugees, despite the Trump Administration’s efforts to keep them out.

The city and state’s top officials have publicly supported welcoming refugees. Portland already has a community of residents from the Congo. Knowing that there are French-speaking Africans already there, helps make it attractive to those coming now.

So many asylum seekers arrived last summer that nearly 300 of them had to be housed in the city’s exposition center. About 1,200 volunteers signed up to care for them.

To help pay for the asylum seekers needs, more than 4,000 people donated $900,000 to Portland’s Community Support fund last summer. The city council established the fund in 2015 to help asylum seekers.

Public and private entities worked to recruit host families for temporary housing last summer. Residents from around the area opened their homes to them.

Most of the asylum seekers who arrived last summer now have permanent housing, according to Tom Bell, public information officer for the Greater Portland Council of Governments, which helped with the host families initiative.

Helping the asylum seekers has a collaborative process involving multiple entities. Most of these central African arrivals are coming by way of South America. Catholic Charities provided bus tickets to the asylum seekers for the trip from the southern border to Portland and other cities.

The United Church of Christ gave a grant to Portland’s Portland’s Willison-Immanuel United Church a year ago to help that church with its efforts to resettle asylum seekers.

Most of the asylum seekers who arrived last summer now have permanent housing, according to Tom Bell, public information officer for the Greater Portland Council of Governments, which helped with the host families initiative.

Refugees can help Maine with a growing problem: its shrinking workforce.

More young people are attracted to Portland, but it’s not enough, according to Charles Colgan, former Maine state economist. An aging and declining population creates a workforce shortage and a contributes to a declining economy. That is particularly true for the state’s tourism industry, a key economic sector.

Restaurateurs and hotel operators are already feeling the pinch, according to Steve Hewins, CEO of Hospitality Maine, a non-profit trade group focused on ensuring a reliable workforce and making tourism a viable career path. Restaurants are having to close for lunch and hotels are having to close sections of hotels because they don’t have the necessary staff, he said.

Other business sectors see immigrants as a source of new workers. Two years ago, the Southern Maine Community College started a program aimed at immigrants with medical background. The program is designed to help them because Emergency Medical Technicians. This is important to Maine, which faces the double whammy of an aging population needing more medical care and a shrinking labor pool.

Below: host family organizers at work last summer; photos by Tom Bell

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