MAINE, USA — For asylum seekers in Maine, arriving here is the first of many hurdles they have to navigate. From finding housing to waiting on often lengthy documentation processing to the language barrier, starting a new life is no easy task.
"When I came over here, I could not say any word in English except 'good morning,'" Guy Mpoyi said.
Mpoyi is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and but lived in the state for three years, after first spending time in the Las Vegas area.
"I came from there," Mpoyi said. "I know how much it is challenging."
For Mpoyi, one of the biggest challenges he faced after arriving in the U.S. was transportation.
According to advocates, asylum seekers are unable to obtain a driver's license while documentation and asylum applications are processed, which can make getting to essentials like health care appointments, grocery stores, or jobs a constant challenge.
"I struggled a lot to access information about public transportation and then understanding how the system works," Marcel Ntagora said.
Ntagora is also an immigrant to Maine from central Africa. He spent time living in New Hampshire when he first arrived to the U.S.
"They are considered as new Mainers who also have the right, as all residents, to move around, to get around, to move safely and independently on public transportation," Ntagora said.
For asylum seekers just arriving in Maine, public transpiration is often the only way they have to get around.
The Greater Portland Metro and South Portland Bus services have routes to essential services, but learning how to use it in a foreign language can be incredibly challenging.
Mpoyi, however, is working to make public transportation accessible and understandable for the state's newest residents.
"From my own experience, I said, 'How can make this transportation for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers?'" Mpoyi said.
To try and find a solution and make transportation more accessible, Mpoyi joined the Greater Portland Council of Governments Community Transportation Leaders Program. It's a program that works to involve older adults, people with disabilities, people with low incomes, immigrants, and refugees in the transportation planning and decision-making processes.
After taking part in a six week training as part of the CTL program, Mpoyi pitched the idea of the Bus Ambassadors Program to provide direct support to those struggling to navigate public transportation systems.
"He knew how much work there was to be able to get the point of actually being able to implement this program, and he always pushed through, pushed through, pushed through," Kat Violette, community engagement coordinator with GPCOG, said of Mpoyi. "And always for him, he's just thinking about the change he can bring to the community, that's here now, that's going be arriving, and I think that's what always pushes him,"
In 2021, Mpoyi recruited 10 multilingual Mainers to volunteer with the Bus Ambassadors program. The group underwent training with the Greater Portland Metro and South Portland Bus services to ensure volunteers were well prepared to travel.
The program launched later in 2021 and was originally going to operate solely upon requests and referrals. However, because of the high need, Bus Ambassadors began working with asylum seekers staying in area hotels.
According to GPCOG, the Cumberland County government is using its American Rescue Plan Act funds to provide a bus shuttle service twice a week to the three hotels in Yarmouth and Freeport to connect hotel residents to local grocery stores and to services in Greater Portland.
Asylum seekers staying at those hotels can now meet Bus Ambassadors outside of their hotel before getting onto the bus, and learn the bus system in their own language.
"My first language is French, but I can speak five language so far," Mpoyi said.
For those living in South Portland, the Bus Ambassadors have helped county organizers distribute free bus passes to the hotel residents and helped them understand how to plan their trips.
Bus Ambassadors meet with riders, virtually or in-person, to guide new riders on how to plan their trips in and around Greater Portland and even ride the bus together to build confidence.
The Bus Ambassadors program focuses on assisting asylum seekers, but it's a program available to others in the region. To request support or make a referral, you can reach out to GPCOG by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 207-835-1834.