WESTBROOK, Maine — Jerome Muhirwa can’t believe what he did.
In his mid-30s, Muhirwa left a job, a family and his home country of Burundi for the United States, entering four years of uncertainty that was better than the other course he felt was increasingly likely: being killed as a victim of ethnic conflict.
“To be honest, I didn’t really know what was going to be next, after I left,” Muhirwa said in the living room of his Westbrook apartment Friday. “It was a risk that I took, but I was obligated to do so.”
That risk has paid off. His wife and three children joined him in Maine in October. The former computer science teacher has moved from the city to the suburbs, has a job in a Spurwink residential care program for children with special needs and followed in his father’s footsteps, serving as a minister at the Bethel Christian Center.
“It’s a new chapter in our life,” Muhirwa said. “I would say that I have forgotten most of all the difficulties that I have been through because I am happy that I am with my family right now.”
As state lawmakers debate giving financial help to people fleeing persecution in foreign countries, 39-year-old Muhirwa wants them to know his story and the role General Assistance played in getting him on his feet.
The program provides emergency aid for people in need of food, housing, medicine or other essential needs. State and municipal governments share funding responsibilities for the safety net program, which is administered by cities and towns.
Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has proposed elimination of state funding for General Assistance to noncitizens, arguing that it diverts limited state public assistance funding from programs for disabled citizens and elderly Mainers. Advocates for keeping intact the state’s contribution to General Assistance for asylum seekers point to stories like Muhirwa’s in making their case.
The numbers show Muhirwa was one of about 2,100 people in Portland in 2009 who had the state help pay for rent, food or other necessities, but those numbers don’t convey the circumstances.
“We are relieved and we feel that we can sleep and wake up without difficulties, because we feel safe,” said Muhirwa, who has a son in third grade and a daughter entering middle school in Westbrook. “My next step is that my children can go to school and I am not worried that they are going to be killed on the street.”
Muhirwa took his travel visa to Maine on the recommendation of a friend and applied for asylum from the political persecution in his native Burundi, where French and English are national languages.
“When you are in a crisis, there is a climax … this point where you say, ‘I can’t really sustain anymore and I have to leave no matter what,’” Muhirwa said. “My wife was working and could support herself and the children, and so it was a quick decision and an immediate decision.”
The situation in the central African country has grown still more tense. In the past two months, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, more than 100,000 people have fled Burundi to neighboring countries as former rebel commander Pierre Nkurunziza runs for a controversial third term that critics and protesters there say is unconstitutional.
The dispute has led to armed conflict, with police and protesters dying in the fighting. The United Nations on Sunday appointed a diplomat from Senegal to bring leaders from the current government and protest groups together.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Muhirwa, who still has family in the country. “I want to go back there, not live there, but go visit and do something if I can do something there — but when the situation will be different from what it is now.”
Nationally, Burundi has among the smallest number of refugees and asylees to the United States.
The circumstances could eventually lead to another influx of immigrants from the country. Many have left for Tanzania, where people targeted by ethnic violence in 1972 fled. In 2007, more than 4,500 of those refugees were resettled in the United States.
Immigrants seeking asylum in Maine have flocked to the Lewiston-Auburn area — the highest concentration of Somali immigrants in any U.S. city — and to the Portland area.
If not for international immigrants from countries in central Africa and elsewhere, Portland’s population would have declined in the last decade.
Government and business officials in the city have argued the loss of those immigrants would take a long-term economic toll on the city and region, cutting off the assistance available to an immigrant population that tends to be better educated than the native-born population and provides an untapped workforce.
Analysis by Coastal Enterprises Inc., which underwrites community and economic development, found that while the city’s unemployment rate was lower than the national average, foreign-born job seekers had a harder time finding work than the national average. Unemployment for Portland’s foreign-born population was estimated at 11.3 percent in 2013, compared with 6.1 percent nationally.
Waiting for OK to work
Asylum seekers tend to get GA payments for longer than the average for the program in Portland, because they have to wait at least 150 days to apply for a work permit. It can take up to two years before the federal government decides whether they can stay.
That’s part of the reason the city’s GA costs have risen, as the number of cases have declined while the cost of the program has increased, partly due to more people seeking asylum in Portland after coming to Maine with federal visitor or business visas.
About 33 percent of the city’s $10.1 million in GA last year went to refugees or asylum seekers. Another third went to people temporarily disabled and about 23 percent went to people deemed “able-bodied” but without work.
Across all payments, about 51 percent went to landlords for rent and another 28 percent went to emergency shelters for temporary housing.
The city estimates there are now about 900 people getting financial help from General Assistance as they wait to hear if they will be granted asylum.
LePage has argued and won a court ruling that the state is not required to reimburse municipalities for General Assistance payments to asylum seekers. And as Portland’s GA costs increased, so did the state’s, which paid $8.1 million of the $10.1 million spent in the city last year.
Between $4 million and $5 million of that goes to GA for asylum seekers each year, according to city estimates, an amount that, if the city goes it alone, would require doubling a planned property tax increase of about 3 percent.
In the Legislature’s hands
The future of state funding for emergency aid to asylum seekers remains very much in doubt, with decisions at the state government level likely to affect the way General Assistance is administered as early as next month.
The Maine Senate on Thursday approved in a 29-5 vote a last-ditch effort to provide state funding for General Assistance to asylum seekers for up to 24 months. That effort took the form of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, but the sponsor of the bill to which it was attached, Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, predicts the bill will die because of differences between the House and Senate.
Alain Nahimana, coordinator for the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition who also fled Burundi for Maine, said the Senate vote was a surprise to him and an encouraging display of bipartisanship, but it’s unclear if the House will follow suit. He plans to lobby the governor’s office.
“I was planning now for some folks to write a letter to LePage in French,” he said.
The uncertainty leaves Portland officials, who have held off on crafting a budget and will next meet on Wednesday, with a possible budget gap of $4 million to $5 million if they decide to continue providing GA to asylum seekers even if the state cuts off reimbursements.
In deciding whether to provide that funding from the city’s coffers, it will also have to come to terms with the ruling by Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren, who found that until and unless the Legislature enacts laws that allow asylum seekers to receive General Assistance funds, they are ineligible under federal law.
In the immediate future, Muhirwa said the loss of those funds stands to put asylum seekers like many in his congregation at Bethel Christian Center out on the street or back into a homeless shelter, which was his first stop for about a month when he arrived in the United States.
“Nobody here in Maine will be happy to see families, children, mothers, freezing outside,” Muhirwa said. “They absolutely need to be given a place to live and they absolutely need basic needs like food. There’s no other place they can find that except for this program.”
In the long run, he framed the consequences in a more personal way.
“Imagine I was not supported in one way or another,” Muhirwa said. “How could I get to this day where I become happy again?”