Opening doors: asylum-seekers made to feel welcome by area volunteers

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PORTLAND — Jill Skrabalak, Eliza Matheson and approximately 160 other mentors from the Greater Portland area are aiming to welcome those seeking asylum into the community, however they can.

Welcoming the Stranger is an informal group started in 2015 by a group of people in the Jewish community who felt an “affinity for people who were forced to leave their homes and start a new life.”

According to WTS’s website, unlike refugees, who have been granted legal residence and arrive with access to basic resettlement services, there is no formal system in place to help asylum-seekers.

The grassroots project matches local mentors with asylum-seekers to help them integrate into the community, whether it’s by helping them navigate the bus route or navigate the not-so-straightforward asylum application process.

In a time when Maine began to see an influx of asylum-seekers – mostly educated, middle-class residents of central Africa’s Burundi, Rwanda, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo who were fleeing violence or persecution – many Jews felt “welcoming the stranger” was a well-known aspect of their history.

But the notion of helping those in need is one that unites, regardless of religion, and soon, the program expanded.

Jill Epstein, of Cape Elizabeth, helped get the program off the ground.

A “boom” in volunteering through WTS came in 2016, which Epstein suspects was related to a shift in the political climate nationwide.

“It’s a beautiful growing community and network of helpers that has continued to expand over two years,” Epstein said, noting that WTS has matched over 200 asylum seekers with mentors since it’s inception, typically, five to 10 a month.

“The current climate feels really scary. People can perceive us as an unwelcoming place … It’s made me want to challenge that narrative in a very real way,” Matheson said.

WTS is constantly seeking new mentors to help keep up with that growth. Applications can be found at wtsmaine.com.

Through WTS, mentors have access to a large network of other individuals and groups already engaged with the immigrant community who can offer support and guidance if specific needs, such as housing, schooling or medical care arise.

Epstein said one of their greatest supporters is Claudette Dayininahaze, a cultural broker for The Opportunity Alliance in Portland, a Burundian immigrant and the referral source for many of the mentees that WTS serves. Mentoring can be a lot of things, but according to Epstein, a mentor’s primary task is simply to be a friend to their mentee who, otherwise, might feel alone in a new world.

Many mentors – including Matheson and Skrabalak – work in teams to support their mentee. On Matheson’s team is Inka Hodes, Devra Krassner and Sam Spiers. Skrabalak works with Carla Tracy and Jessica Stafos.

“I quickly learned that it was a large undertaking,” Matheson said. “Refugees have access to a lot of services that asylum-seekers are not entitled to.”

Some of the more intensive, time-consuming work is helping people apply for asylum status. According to Epstein, when WTS started, the system was so backed up that seekers would wait years for their application to be heard in front of a judge. In January, the process switched. Now, when seekers file, they’re put at the top of the list and are often called in for a hearing in just weeks.

Such a quick turnaround is restrictive in that asylum-seekers don’t have enough time to obtain a work permit and earn enough to hire a lawyer. If they don’t have a lawyer, or haven’t learned enough English, it can be difficult for them to effectively argue their case. Asylum denials can be appealed, but, once again, would be hard to do without a lawyer.

“It’s complicated for anyone that speaks English. I can’t imagine navigating the system solo,” Matheson said.

Skrabalak and Matheson, both from Cape Elizabeth, have mentees who came to the U.S. before the switch and are waiting for their asylum applications to be heard by a judge.

Matheson said there was no way of knowing where her mentee was in line.

“It’s hard not to feel like hope is slipping through your fingers sometimes,” Skrabalak added.

Matheson and Skrabalak did not want to disclose the names of the two women they’re mentoring, but referred to them by their first initials, Z and N, respectively.

Both Z and N are single mothers. Z is from the Republic of Congo, lives in Portland with her son and works full time at American Roots Wear. N, who’s from Burkina Faso, recently moved to Lewiston with her three sons.

Skrabalak said N is in a wheelchair, which has made it nearly impossible for her to find work. She needs surgery that will cost roughly $200,000, which would have to be done pro bono. Skrabalak said their priority right now is finding a surgeon to do so.

“Still,” Skrabalak said. “Her tenacity is amazing.”

Both she and Matheson said they’ve been incredibly inspired by their mentees’ hard work and dedication to building a life in Maine, when it could so easily be taken away by a judge’s decision.

Z even uses a chunk of her paycheck to pay monthly fees to keep her lawyer on retainer.

“I know bare bones of her situation … what they’re coming from is far more dangerous and scary than we could ever imagine,” Matheson said of Z. “She’s worked so hard to be here and she’s so much a part of our community. The least we can do is help her navigate systems which are built to not make it easy.”

Working with their mentees has also been a good learning experience for Matheson and Skrabalak’s children, they said.

“My boys live quite nicely as middle-class children, (but) I’m always afraid of this ‘afluentitis’ sort of thing,” Skrabalak said. “I’ve learned not just to teach compassion but to show it and to feel it.”

Both Matheson and Skrabalak have said their greater network of friends and surrounding communities have been very willing to help as well, whether it’s by offering advice or a donation.

“People want to help. Sometimes that’s time, sometimes that’s money, sometimes that’s a listening ear,” Matheson said. “It comes in so many forms and I’m happy to be a conduit for that.”

If she’s taken one thing out of her experience working as a mentor, Skrabalak said it would be the concept of “connectedness.”

“(Midst) all the challenges is that human element … just being able to hold out your hand and find someone at the other end,” she said. “There’s power in one and huge power in many.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Mentor Bobbie Gordon, left, Hamda Elmi, Fardoussa Ismael and mentor Teri Wilner smile during an Adult Education graduation ceremony in Portland in 2017. Welcoming the Stranger is a grassroots effort that pairs mentors like Gordon and Wilner with asylum seekers in the Greater Portland area.

Cape Elizabeth residents Eliza Matheson, left, and Jill Skrabalak have both been mentors through Welcoming the Stranger for over a year. They have both been touched and inspired by the strength and tenacity of their mentees, both of whom are waiting for their asylum applications to be heard by a judge.

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