WESTBROOK, Maine — For Jeff and Jenna Marion of Westbrook, 2022 came to a close like any other normal year. Life was busy enough with three young children. But when the calendar flipped forward to 2023, Jeff felt like he needed to do something else.
He had been working remotely for a year and a half and missed having a sense of community in his everyday routine. That's how he ended up volunteering to teach English to asylum seekers at Portland Adult Education.
"I was very nervous about my first class — what to wear, how to act, everything," Jeff recalled, chuckling.
After his first two classes teaching a larger group, Jeff began doing one-on-one tutoring with a young man named Paul* from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Paul was staying at a hotel in South Portland, so the pair would meet in the food court at the Maine Mall for lessons. Jeff said he and Paul developed a bond during those meetings.
"I think until you start actually working with the local immigrant population and getting to know them as people, there’s a real sort of barrier between your understanding," Jeff said. "I know that's what it was like for me."
During a particularly cold weekend in February, Paul experienced a miscommunication with the hotel where he was staying and thought he was going to end up either back on the streets or at the Oxford Street homeless shelter. Jeff and Jenna said they knew that kind of environment wasn't particularly conducive to Paul's desires to thrive in Maine, so they took a leap of faith and offered to let Paul move in with them temporarily.
"Obviously, [the Oxford Street homeless shelter] is not an environment where you can get good rest and good sleep to be able to wake up the next day and start a life," Jenna said.
From there, an unexpected journey for this Maine family of five and this man from the DRC began. Jenna said her family and Paul have grown very close. They've taken trips to Pine Tree State destinations and to Boston. She and Paul have exchanged recipes. Jenna said she even learned Paul has a child of his own in the DRC, who's about the same age as her youngest.
"I feel like he has sort of formed a bond with our youngest child," Jenna said.
Throughout this entire experience, the Marions have also offered more practical support to Paul, too.
Jenna said she and Jeff have taken Paul to apartment showings. They've also done their best to help him navigate the complicated and intricate application processes for asylum-seeking status and a work permit. That endeavor has shown them how complicated these systems are for folks trying to start a life in the United States.
"He has been here for almost a year, and I feel like he is actually much further ahead than a lot of other asylum-seekers are," Jenna said. "Even so, we’re coming up on a year, and he still doesn’t have his work permit. That’s like his No. 1 goal. He just wants to work, work, work."
Working is in Paul's nature. He was a computer engineer in the DRC but said he left because political tensions made him fear for his life. Now, he volunteers at PAE to help out with technical issues. He said his family is still in Africa.
"I have a big family in the DRC," Paul said, later adding, "I have a child. ... She’s very wonderful."
Paul's living situation with the Marions may be unique, but his escape to the United States and to Maine, specifically, is not.
Kristen Dow, director of health and human services for the city of Portland, said Maine's largest city has seen around a thousand asylum seekers and counting arrive in need of a place to live since Jan. 1.
"Regardless of whether they’re asylum-seekers or not, when you have a large number of people coming to an area all at once to live and to relocate, it puts a strain on some systems. Our shelters are all full across the city," Dow said.
About a month ago, the Portland Expo opened as a temporary emergency space with wraparound services for asylum seekers. Dow said that facility isn't creating a lot of extra capacity, though, which is why she said the city needs a long-term solution.
"We’re talking with the state and other partners and providers to see what can be offered," Dow said.
Yvette Unezase is the interim executive director of the Maine Association for New Americans, a nonprofit organization founded in 2012 by immigrants, with the goal of supporting other immigrants. Unezase said they provide everything from transportation to emotional and peer support. She said a lot of people they work with have experienced trauma and are stressed about finding housing.
"As you can imagine, if you don’t have any place to stay, your mental health is not there," Unezase said. "I mean, these are quite basic needs."
Unezase said when it comes to finding stable housing, like an apartment, asylum seekers and immigrants face a number of barriers like applications, fees, and often language barriers.
"Most of the applications ask where you have lived before," Unezase said. "If you don’t have experience here, you’re not going to put in, 'I was in Congo. I was in Angola.' The trust can be reduced based on that."
Oftentimes, having a personal connection helps. Last month, Jeff got a new job, and the Marions moved to Massachusetts. Jenna saw on Facebook that her friend in Biddeford was leaving her apartment. Jenna reached out to the landlord and asked if he would consider accepting General Assistance for Paul, to which he agreed. Paul has since moved into his new place and received his work permit, ready to begin a new chapter.
"We are very different," Jenna said, reflecting on this experience. "We come from very different backgrounds. [But] in our hearts, we have so many things in common. We are very similar in a lot of ways."
Jeff and Jenna have set up a GoFundMe page to help Paul pay for gas, so he can continue taking English classes and volunteering at Portland Adult Education. You can learn more here. You can also help other asylum seekers in the city of Portland by clicking here.
*This name is an alias for the story. We're choosing not to use this asylum seeker's real name to protect his identity.