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About 300 asylum seekers from Africa seek a new start in Portland

Jean Garcia Mabaka Yangu held his daughter Dorline. He fled the Democratic Republic of Congo with his four children.
Jean Garcia Mabaka Yangu held his daughter Dorline. He fled the Democratic Republic of Congo with his four children.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

PORTLAND, Maine — When Jean Garcia Mabaka Yangu bent over Friday to pick up his 1-year-old, his T-shirt stretched and lifted to expose a jagged foot-long scar on his abdomen.

It was inflicted, he said, by the knife of a soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country he fled with his four children. That began a harrowing, months-long journey to South America, through Mexico to Texas, and finally to this historically welcoming city in northern New England.

But for now, Mabaka Yangu felt safe, cradling his baby outside a Portland sports arena where 228 asylum seekers are being sheltered as the city scrambles to cope with an unprecedented surge of new arrivals, many of them Africans from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola.

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“I am very happy,” Mabaka Yangu, wearing a baseball cap from Mexico, said through an interpreter.

Three hundred asylum seekers have arrived in Portland in recent weeks in search of a better life. They walked through jungles, crossed mountains, forded wild rivers, and begged their way onto buses where they could, a half-dozen migrants said Friday outside the Portland Expo.

Along the way, they had been robbed, tracked by gangs, and seen fellow migrants murdered, said Djodjo Didi, 27, a Congolese who arrived here Friday with his wife and two children after an odyssey that began in December.

“I heard people were coming here,” Didi said. “I heard people refer to Portland. I am afraid to go back to Congo.”

In contrast to some cities across the country, Portland has long been an attractive destination for asylum seekers and other new immigrants, including large numbers of Somalis and Sudanese who have been drawn by social media and word of mouth from other African families who found a warm greeting from many Mainers.

But now, in a metropolitan area already facing housing shortages and rising prices, the sudden influx has officials in Portland and surrounding communities searching for places to put the new arrivals.

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“It’s a capacity issue,” said Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director. “We’ve had to take a sports facility and turn it into an emergency shelter.”

Neighboring cities and towns are surveying landlords to locate vacant housing. The Greater Portland Council of Governments, which serves 25 communities, is considering screening residents who have offered to accept families. The University of Southern Maine even offered dormitory space as a temporary measure, but Portland officials are looking for longer-term placements while the new arrivals undertake the months-long asylum process.

Papy Bongibo, president of the Congolese Community of Maine, said that about half of the 1,500 to 2,000 Congolese in the state reside in Portland, where he’s lived since 2010.

“I like it,” Bongibo said. “It’s quiet; it’s a nice place to live; I’m very well-treated here.”

Most of the recent asylum seekers have arrived since June 9, when 39 people arrived in a single day, Grondin said. They are free to come and go as they please from the Expo, where the Maine Red Claws, the development team of the Boston Celtics, plays its home games.

Mabaka Yangu and his children are among the asylum seekers now in Portland, Maine.
Mabaka Yangu and his children are among the asylum seekers now in Portland, Maine.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

Dozens of asylum seekers already have moved on from the Expo, some of them reportedly heading toward Canada, believing it offers a better chance at asylum.

Whatever the bureaucratic hurdles in this country, however, migrant after migrant described a life of mortal fear back home. That is what led them to undertake a journey so long, perilous, and fraught with the unknown that the volunteers who work with them here are left shaking their heads.

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Makaba Yangu said he lost his four children in Panama, but another migrating family took them in. Once in Portland, they reunited, although Makaba Yangu said the children’s clothing was lost among the many buses from Texas to Maine.

Some migrants said they turned themselves in at border stations; others said they crossed the Rio Grande illegally and were arrested and detained. After requesting asylum, most of them boarded buses and traveled north.

Remy Ndombasi, who journeyed to Portland from Texas with two children, said he would have been killed because of his political beliefs had he stayed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Instead, he undertook a four-month trip in which the jungles of Panama posed the most danger.

They had no boat to ferry them to the next stop. No ground transportation. Only walking, mile after mile in a foreboding and unfamiliar place, he said.

Once in Texas, Ndombasi said that a representative from Catholic Charities mentioned Portland as a welcoming destination. So, off he went, abandoning his plan to begin a new life in New York.

Ndombasi stood outside the Expo at mid-day Friday, glancing at a piece of paper that showed he would receive a check-up from a doctor in a half-hour. Quay Kelly, a volunteer who emigrated from Angola several years ago, helped him with the logistics.

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The migrants did not smile often — everything was still so new — but Ndombasi told Kelly he finally felt safe.

“I haven’t seen any place here,” he said, “where people are fighting and killing each other.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.