'Building community': Group welcomes immigrants to Mid-Coast

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BRUNSWICK — For the past two years, the Midcoast New Mainers Support Group has worked not just to bring immigrants to the Bath-Brunswick-Topsham area, but also to roll out the welcome mat, integrating them into their new hometown to create a thriving multicultural society.

“It’s really about building community,” Andree Appel said in an interview Oct. 18 alongside Carol Kalajainen, a fellow member of the group’s steering committee.

The work of the Compassionate Housing Initiative in Yarmouth to provide temporary housing for Portland-based asylum-seekers inspired the Brunswick women and others to form their own group. 

The low-income housing market in Maine’s largest city is tight and not always desirable, Appel said, noting, “there are several reasons why people are anxious to get out of Portland.”

The New Mainers group connected with the Phippsburg Congregational Church brought two families to Bath, a city offering quality affordable housing opportunities, Appel recalled. When an apartment there became available, New Mainers approached the Opportunity Alliance in South Portland about any immigrant families the organization deemed appropriate to relocate to Bath.

“We knew that they would have to be fairly self-reliant; we were hoping that they were employable,” Appel said. 

As fortune would have it, such a family from West Africa was ready to move. In all, New Mainers has worked with the Phippsburg church to bring 19 people to the southern Mid-Coast.

“Portland, Lewiston and Augusta are the center for services for immigrants,” Kalajainen said. “So anyone that steps out of that immediate area needs to have enough English … and resourcefulness in order to move into an area that is not set up for immigrants.”

“It has to be someone who is able to move away from that, or who wants to move away from that,” she added.

While the group’s initial goal was to bring families to Maine, it has broadened its focus to help them integrate into their new communities once they arrive. 

“There’s been a need for a lot of support and assistance to make people successful and have a good experience,” Kalajainen said.

The group seeks input from the community on what activities could be held to bring together current and new residents alike. To “create a positive environment and allow people to see this as a win-win,” Appel noted.

People can email Kalajainen to offer input, and get more information, at chkalajainen@verizon.net.

“We welcome any ideas that people have on how to make this community work for everyone,” Appel said.

“We see our role as helping these families that are ready to leave the more or less cocooned situation in Portland, to find a new community, and to help the community to be welcoming,” Kalajainen said. “… And help (current residents) realize the richness that they bring to the life of the community.”

“Many of them are quite interested in filling the kinds of positions that we need filled in Maine,” like nurses and personal care workers, she added. 

Kalajainen cited data from New American Economy, published in Maine’s Amjambo Africa! newspaper, stating that Greater Portland area immigrants contributed $1.2 billion to the region’s gross domestic product in 2016, and paid federal taxes of $133 million, as well as $62 million in local and state taxes.

“We want people to know that the new Mainers really bring a lot to the table, and that they are a positive contribution,” Kalajainen said. “These are folks who have been successful in their own countries. … They need to make the cultural transition in order to be successful here.”

“If they have a little help, they are quickly on their way to being contributors,” she added, “and they want to contribute.”

And they want the same things as everyone else.

“We want a safe place for our children, we want good education (for them),” Kalajaiben said. “We want a place where we can live safely, peacefully and happily, and build our lives.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Carol Kalajainen, left, and Andree Appel are two steering committee members with the Midcoast New Mainers Support Group, which strives in part to integrate immigrants into their new communities.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.