Portland, Maine: an unlikely lure for weary migrants

Portland (United States) (AFP) –


Converging from far-flung corners of the earth, and operating by word of mouth and social media, hundreds of African migrants have turned Portland, Maine -- population, 67,000 -- into an unlikely sanctuary.

The Wayemala family is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They heard of the Atlantic port city in the northeastern US state while living in Brazil, where they settled in 2016.

The Muenda family, also from the DRC, learned of Portland through an acquaintance in South Africa, where they had been living as exiles since 2003.

In all, some 300 Congolese and Angolan migrants, lured by a general aid program for asylum seekers, have arrived here in recent months after traveling halfway across the world.

The city is 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) from the US-Mexican border, where a constant flow of Central American and other migrants seeks entry into the United States, in the face of President Donald Trump's strict policies.

But it is nonetheless a new bright spot on the map for migrants looking for a better life.

On June 9, 39 Africans reached Maine by bus after traveling from San Antonio, on the border with Mexico.

That same day, an official from the Texas city warned authorities in Portland that hundreds more were on their way.

And the city got ready to receive them. Its main gym was turned into a shelter with hundreds of cots, and people were rounded up to serve meals and give vaccinations.

Pro-bono lawyers were mobilized, as were volunteers speaking French, Portuguese or Lingala, a language spoken in the DRC.

People in this mainly Democratic state chipped in: a warehouse filled up with clothing, shoes and toys. City hall received more than half a million dollars in donations, including $40,000 from horror novelist Stephen King and his wife, who live in Maine.

Teresa Wayemala and her husband Arthur said that after two tries at living in self-imposed exile since 2015, first in Angola and then in Brazil, they finally felt welcome -- like it could be home.

- 'We lost patience' -

In a soft voice barely audible above the cries of children, Teresa Wayemala recounted the three-month odyssey her family endured traveling from a shantytown in Sao Paulo to the US-Mexico border.

They covered a total of 8,000 kilometers with other migrants making the trek.

Wayemala sits on her cot and feeds her daughter Melissa as she lists the countries they traveled through, mainly by bus: Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and then, finally, Mexico.

There were two especially harrowing moments on the trip.

One was crossing the Darien Gap, a swath of swampland and forest that forms the natural border between Colombia and Panama and is known to be infested with dangerous wild animals -- and bandits. Some have died trying to get through it.

Then there was their arrival at the US border with Mexico in mid-April,

The Wayemalas joined thousands of others waiting to file applications for asylum, which the Trump administration handles at what for many is an agonizingly slow pace.

The family slept out in the open and begged for food for six weeks.

Then, Wayemala said, "We lost patience."

At the risk of seeing their bid for asylum scrapped, they made a run for it and crossed the Rio Grande, Melissa riding piggyback.

"I had water up to my chest," Wayemala said.

Ikoko Baseke, a 43-year-old Congolese man who left Kinshasa for Sao Paulo in January, tells an almost identical story of his trek to the storied river that forms the US-Mexico border.

US border agents were waiting for them on the US side in Texas.

- 'I need to rest' -

The Wayemalas were held for six days while authorities processed them and set a court date for their asylum hearing. Then, a charity provided them with free bus tickets and off they went, bound for Portland.

They are hoping to obtain asylum and settle in the United States for good.

"We have moved around a lot," said Mrs. Wayemala. "I need to rest."

Some of the African migrants decided not to test their luck and left for Canada and its more open asylum policy.

Portland is handling the influx as best it can but officials are worried.

The city is hoping for help from surrounding towns and from Democratic Governor Janet Mills, who came to visit the shelter in mid-June.

But it has not yet received anything, said city hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin.

The city's program for asylum seekers provides each family with about $1,500 a month in aid, in the hopes that within six months to a year, the state assistance program will begin.

This combination of two sources of aid is unique and is probably what gave Portland such a good reputation among migrants seeking a new home, Grondin added.

But the city aid program had an annual budget of $200,000 and with around 70 new families to look after, some $1.2 million will be needed next year, she said.

"We are a city of 67 000 people and while we certainly are welcoming and want to continue being welcoming, there is a point where you say, 'What is the capacity that you can hold and what is the financial burden that we can assume?'" Grondin mused.