BRUNSWICK, Maine — With some 120 asylum seekers now living in Brunswick, the town's "cultural broker," Nsiona Nguizani, is learning more every day about how best to help these New Mainers thrive.
In August, the town hired Nguizani, originally from Angola, to help asylum seekers who moved from Portland to transition to life in Brunswick.
The challenge was formidable, Nguizani says. One family left their home country when their child was two-and-a-half. They arrived in the United States when he was five.
"You don't know how much time they passed in each country, but it was a long journey," he says. After a struggle to integrate into a kindergarten classroom in Brunswick, Nguizani said today, "They're playing like crazy, all the time they want to ride the bike, all the time they want to run. It's a playground everywhere."
Soon after he was hired as the town's cultural broker, Nguizani called Don Lader of Midcoast Literacy in Bath.
Lader's Bath office is lined with books, but literacy in reading and writing isn't his only goal.
His organization, funded entirely by donations and private grants, also helps people prepare for citizenship tests, teaches computer literacy and other skills.
"It's more than just asylum seekers," he said. "Some are immigrants, and some are just native English speakers who need help with reading and writing."
While learning English is a primary task for New Mainers, Lader's goal is to have them speaking conversational English within six months, in part so they're ready to work as soon as it's legal -- other living skills in their new country are just as different and just as challenging.
"Back home, most people live daily," Nguizani said."You go out today, you walk, you get your money, buy your stuff and go home. Tomorrow you do the same. Most of the people don't have savings. Even the way people function on a daily basis [in thier home country] -- it's not like, 'OK, I have my money and can plan.' You don't do that. You can't go to the grocery store and buy for one week."
So cultural tutors are teaching them to assess what they need for the week and then make a list before coordinating a ride and making the trip to Hannaford or Shaw's. Once there, the tutors teach them not only about "a bunch of grapes" and how to compare the prices of different brands, but often an entirely new monetary system and weight system.
It's a whole new way of life, Nguizani said-- one that now also includes planning transportation for appointments.
Nguizani says his goal is to help New Mainers integrate and to help Mainers include newcomers.
"Most of the immigrant people come here because they choose to live in America," he said. "Why did we choose to live in America? Because there is something that you feel in America and we want to be part of that, so that's what we want to work on. We want to integrate."
Now, Lader is modifying an existing database to coordinate volunteers with people who need transportation, childcare and tutors. He hopes to launch the program, which will work on smartphones, this Thursday.
Lader is accepting applications now for volunteers who will drive or be tutors -- he said he's working with Bowdoin College to see if students will volunteer.
"The people in Bath and Brunswick have really come out to support asylum seekers," he said. "That's how they've been able to survive thus far. We're just trying to make it [easier] ... Thank god we have a lot of good people around Brunswick. The beauty of Brunswick is its people."
The waiting list for tutors is currently about 40 adults, with additional children in Bath and Brunswick waiting to be matched with tutors.
Training sessions for those who wish to volunteer as tutors for adults and children are scheduled for January, and online training is also available.
For more information on becoming a volunteer or a tutor, visit the Midcoast Literacy website or call (207) 443-6384.
Despite the hardships they've endured and the challenges ahead, Nguizani said the New Mainers are "really tough." He told of a family of four that walked from Brunswick Landing to the downtown bus station on Saturday -- when there's no bus service to the Landing -- in order to attend church in Portland.
"Hard situations are made for tough people," he said. "These people are really tough. And they are determined."