Maine Focus

When these refugees shared their loneliness, Maine overwhelmed them with kindness

Posted Feb. 18, 2017, at 7:39 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 18, 2017, at 8:19 a.m.

More than 75 people have reached out to the first refugee family to be relocated to a small town in Maine after learning of their feelings of isolation, in an outpouring of support at a time when the refugee resettlement program has become a hotly debated issue on the national stage.

A BDN article published in early January chronicled the challenges facing the Kaluta family, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as they adjust to life in Thomaston, population 2,781.

For instance, no one in the family of 15 has a license or car, and there is no reliable public transportation in Thomaston, so they must depend on rides from volunteers.

Only two members of the family spoke English when they arrived in the country last summer, and opportunities for adult education in the Thomaston area remain limited. As the only apparent Africans in a small, mostly white town, the family shared how they often feel alone in their new home.

Community members in Thomaston had supported the family by driving them to Walmart for groceries, organizing English lessons at the library for the adults, and donating toys and books.

But after more people learned of the family’s situation, the offers to help came pouring in.

Laurence Coe, from Rockland, has been coordinating support for the family. She has not yet managed to respond to every email she has received from people offering assistance, but she’s close.

“I have just a few more to get through,” she said.

Most of the people who wrote offered “non-specific assistance,” Coe said, offering to help in any way they could. But many were quite specific.

Someone offered land on their farm in nearby Union for the family to cultivate starting in the spring.

A couple from the area with young children offered to get together, so the kids could play with each other.

A Catholic Church in nearby Camden reached out to say it would like to be involved with the family members, who are Catholic.

The head of a rowing program in Rockland said she could teach the family to row when the weather improves.

And an employee of Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services, a non-profit in Lewiston that provides literacy programs and counseling to new arrivals, offered to help the family relocate to Portland or Lewiston, should they ever decide to leave the Thomaston area.

There have also been offers to babysit, teach English and driving, and to donate books, toys and art supplies.

Not a single person has written to Coe with a negative comment.

‘Focus on my English’

I recently visited Mzaliwa, the 19-year-old middle child, at the family’s home in Thomaston, and he greeted me with a full smile. He went into his bedroom and came out, still smiling, with a stack of email messages addressed to him, which Coe had printed.

A woman from Rockland wrote, in French, that she had lived in the west African country of Cameroon, her husband is Cameroonian, and they wanted to have Mzaliwa and his family over for a meal. She wanted to return the “la belle hospitalité africaine” — the beautiful African hospitality — she received in Cameroon, she wrote.

A Mainer living in Washington state wrote in Swahili, one of Mzaliwa’s languages, welcoming him to Maine and suggesting they be in email contact.

A student at Barnard College in New York wrote in English, offering to be his pen pal.

Mzaliwa has also received dozens of new Facebook friend requests and messages.

The response has been overwhelming and heartening, Mzaliwa said, and he hasn’t known quite how to respond.  

Aside from people reaching out, two things have made a big, concrete difference in his life, he said. First, he has a new English teacher with experience who “knows grammar so good.”

Second, the nursing home where he works allowed him to stop working overnight shifts, so now he has normal hours and doesn’t feel groggy on his days off.

“I can focus on my English,” he said.

At the same time, a national conversation has erupted over President Donald Trump’s executive order that blocked Syrian refugees from coming to the United States, stopped all refugees from being admitted for 120 days, and barred citizens of seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — from entering the country.

A federal district judge, followed by a federal appeals court, have frozen the order, allowing the previously barred refugees and immigrants to continue to come to the U.S.

Mzaliwa said he didn’t understand Trump’s order so well, but, “He is president and he can choose who he wants to be here. We can’t say anything, because he is in power,” Mzaliwa said in French.

At his house, Mzaliwa wanted to show me a painting, hanging on his wall, that he had made with donated art supplies. It showed a cluster of African huts, grass and sky — a landscape, I observed.

“Landscape,” he repeated slowly. “Landscape.” His eyes turned up as he filed away one more English word.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. 

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