African immigrant business owners say LePage could offer them more help

Posted Aug. 30, 2013, at 6:54 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage heard a familiar suggestion Friday when he visited an immigrant-owned store that specializes in African goods and groceries: Cut red tape for business owners.

LePage stopped at the Congress Street store owned by Elijah Y Akilo, originally from Nigeria, and James Deng, a South Sudanese immigrant, during a visit Friday with members of Portland’s Sudanese community. The governor spoke with the business owners about housing, state programs and other issues the immigrant community has commonly encountered in Maine.

“The governor coming here is a blessing in disguise for us,” Akilo said, explaining that he saw the visit as an opportunity to discuss licensing issues the co-owners recently encountered.

After relocating the store closer to downtown, Akilo and Deng didn’t properly transfer their Women, Infant and Children program participation license, which is required to allow them to continue accepting payment from customers who use the federal nutrition program.

After seven years of operating their business at a different location, Deng and Akilo said they’ve been told they will now have to wait up to a year to reapply for the license. Akilo estimated that around 95 percent of the store’s customers use WIC and food stamps to pay for groceries, and he worries how the business will continue without the revenue source.

Akilo has owned and operated businesses in Portland for more than 20 years, but he admits that he still makes mistakes.

“We [immigrant business owners] will always make mistakes because there are a lot of things we don’t know,” he said, suggesting that the state should do more to educate immigrants trying to get through state and federal bureaucracies.

Whether or not the governor can help with his problem, Akilo hopes that LePage’s visit was an indication that he wants to build a relationship with Maine’s immigrant and refugee community.

“Certain things need to be done,” Akilo said of ways LePage and his administration can help immigrants understand American financial and governmental systems. “He needs to go back and try to give more to the immigrant community because a lot has been taken away in terms of help from the state of Maine.

“The policies that he’s made in the past weren’t very friendly to the immigrant, refugee community, but we all change,” Akilo continued. “I’m hoping that this is a step [for him] into the community, but keep in mind the election is getting close.”

In a prepared statement, LePage said Friday’s visit marked his second meeting with members of the Sudanese community since July.

“We want government to provide services that are available in an efficient and effective way, whether its employment opportunities through the Department of Labor, space for a community center or housing by partnering with the Maine Housing Authority,” he said in the release. “My administration wants to be there to help, and we want you to feel safe and welcome in Maine’s community.”