BRUNSWICK, Maine — Whether through a smile, a hug or even Google Translate, residents of Brunswick are finding ways to make their new neighbors -- asylum seekers formerly housed at the Portland Expo -- feel welcome, and to equip them for life in their new community.
As of Monday, more than 50 asylum seekers had moved to Brunswick, with most living at Brunswick Landing, a few in other apartments and some staying with host families.
As town officials determine what additional costs the influx might incur, others in the community are galvanizing to meet the group's other needs -- social, psychological and material.
Earlier this month, the town formed a task force and hired Nsiona Nguizani, originally from Angola, as a cultural broker to help the asylum seekers who moved from Portland to transition to life in Brunswick.
Last week, Celina Harrison, a member of the Brunswick School Board and the task force, and her 11-year-old daughter, Norah, were among those who volunteered to ready the housing for its new occupants.
"When a call went out that they needed people to move in these new families a week ago on Friday, I said, 'OK, give me the address,' and Norah and I just showed up and started moving dishes and mattresses and furniture and bedding and lamps to get these families settled in," she said.
But the pair noticed that while despite the furnishings, there were no toys for the children, she said. The next day, she and her kids returned with boxes of crayons, Play-Doh, paper, soccer balls and Frisbees -- and a box of Dunkin' Donuts Munchkins.
"We just drove over and through Google Translate ... we said, 'This is for the kids,'" Harrison said.
Since then, she's exchanged phone numbers with the mothers and they use Google Translate to check in with each other.
"They have no car, they have no family," Harrison said. "[I ask,] 'Is there anything you need? Does the baby need diapers? Do the girls need food?' I’ve been just trying to develop a relationship with these families.”
Meanwhile, the town and school department have offered an "English as a Second Language summer school, provided an interpreter at a registration event, and is considering what other resources may be necessary.
As of Monday, four families -- 17 people -- have applied for general assistance, although town officials expect that number to increase. While the town's annual budget for general assistance is $70,000, the state reimburses 70 percent of that figure, so providing general assistance to six families of four for 12 months would result in a net increase of $34,410, Town Manager John Eldridge said last week.
Nineteen of the 50 new Brunswick residents will attend the town's public schools, with eight starting at Brunswick High School, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said Monday.
Three of five high school boys who tried out for boys soccer will play for Brunswick’s varsity team and may start, coach Mark Roma said Monday afternoon during practice.
Watching as members of the school’s three teams dribbled balls up Crimmins Field, Roma smiled.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” he said of his team, both the new and the returning members.
The superintendent said he is considering whether to hire additional teachers of English as a second language or whether any other other services, such as social workers, will be necessary.
"We're not sure until we get to know them," he said.
Perzanoski said the town recognizes the special needs to adults as well as children.
Still, he said, "We don't anticipate this to be overly expensive."
Harrison has spent her days shuttling new friends to medical appointments and Hannaford, she said. She's encouraged by the warm reception she seen them receive in town.
“When I brought some of the moms to Hannaford, I had people stop me and say, 'Are they from the Expo? Tell them welcome to America,'" she said.
Norah Harrison said she hopes her new friend, another 11-year-old from Angola, might be in her homeroom at Brunswick Junior High School.
Her advice to others when they meet the newcomers is simple:
“Me and my brother have decided a smile is universal," she said. "You don’t have to say a bunch of stuff. You can just smile and let them know that they’re welcome here.”