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Portland program helps legal asylum-seekers complete their applications

The nonprofit Hope Acts and the Portland Public Library started the "Asylum Application Assistance" program in August.

PORTLAND, Maine — A new program in Portland is helping to address a shortage of attorneys who help legal asylum-seekers complete their applications.

In August, the nonprofit Hope Acts connected with the Portland Public Library to start the "Asylum Application Assistance" program. 

Since Aug. 5, staff members and volunteers with Hope Acts have gathered at the library on Fridays and Saturdays to provide asylum-seekers with resources like computers, mailing envelopes, and printing. The goal is to help more people in need successfully submit their applications for asylum to the government. 

"There’s an urgent need in the community for people to have a place to work on their asylum applications," Martha Stein, the executive director of Hope Acts, said.

Stein said her team members can't provide legal assistance, but they can provide guidance and language interpretation. She said this is a pretty complicated process, exacerbated by the fact that it's all in English. And that's not the native tongue of most asylum seekers, who may not have left their homes if they had the choice. 

"Every person I have met is fleeing from something horrible that has happened to them," Stein said. "Why else would you pick up your entire life [and] take a very dangerous journey to something very uncertain unless you absolutely had to do it?"

Stein said she sees this effort as meeting both humanitarian and economic needs since asylum seekers must wait 150 days after their application is approved by the government to apply for a work permit. That process can sometimes be a long one, even though she said most people are ready to get working. 

"I think when you get to know new Mainers, you’ll see that their goals for their lives and their families are very much the same for the rest of us," Stein said.

Mardochee Mbongi is the new president of the Congolese Community of Maine. He has been volunteering with this program for a couple of weeks after having his own asylum-seeking experience six years ago. 

"When I newly arrived here, I was lost — totally lost. You're in a different country and a different environment," Mbongi said, later explaining why he left his home country of Congo.

"Many of my colleagues, friends, people that I know there lost their lives. Some of them are in jail or prison," Mbongi said, noting he was a lawyer and human rights activist back home. 

Mbongi said a lot of the people Hope Acts is currently helping are from Angola, Congo, and Nigeria. He said it's important to enforce an accurate understanding of why asylum-seekers are coming to the United States. He said helping people finish their applications means a lot.

"It puts a smile on their face, and it makes them feel like, 'Oh, yes — now I belong,'" Mbongi said.

So far, this program has made quite a dent in the number of asylum-seekers filling out applications. Business and government librarian Myles Robert said they have been able to help roughly 100 people per month. 

"This program hasn’t gotten any critical remarks from anybody. I think we’re set up to really inspire lifelong learning," Robert said. 

Robert said since this program began, more asylum-seekers have been coming to the library in their free time to enjoy the free resources. He said it has created ample opportunity to build connections with soon-to-be new Mainers.

"For me, it has been really fortifying and encouraging to meet people coming from the Middle East, from Africa, from South America," Robert said. "Really, the differences are small. What we have in common is just right there."

This program session will continue through Nov. 19. And then Robert said it should pick up again in January. Those interested do need to register to take part. They can find out more here.

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