PORTLAND — In early 2010, Luc Mpangaje was forced from his native country, leaving his wife, mother and three children behind.
Mpangaje was a well-known musician and songwriter whose music railed against what he saw as the corrupt government and police force in Burundi, a country of 8.3 million people in sub-Sahara Africa that’s roughly the size of Maryland.
Now, Mpangaje, 31, is seeking asylum in the U.S. through a new Safe Harbor Program established by the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church.
Mpangaje turned to the church for help because the more traditional route to asylum, through agencies that provide legal aid, is increasingly over-burdened.
Asylum seekers like Mpangaje differ from refugees from countries that have formal partnerships from the U.S.
Refugees are pre-approved for entry into the U.S., and are free to get jobs upon their arrival. Asylum seekers come to the U.S. any way they can and then seek asylum.
Typically, asylum seekers would turn to the Immigrant Legal Assistance Program, a privately funded nonprofit that relies on a network of attorneys who offer free legal services to asylum seekers, for help.
Interim Executive Director Hayden Anderson said the demand over the last year has exceeded the available lawyers. Placement for asylum services has increased by 50 percent in the last year, but it’s not enough to keep up with the need, he said.
“The demand for service as out-stripped the capacity,” Anderson said.
Last year, ILAP placed about 30 asylum cases with volunteer lawyers from its Pro Bono Immigration Panel, he said. They’re on track to do that again this year.
Prior to 2010, he said the group would have expected to place about 20 cases.
The agency used to open its doors on Friday afternoons for new asylum seekers, but now, he said, new clients are accepted only by referrals.
“When a member of our pro bono panel takes on one of these cases, they will likely be working on it for several months, sometimes years,” he said. “The asylum process can be extraordinarily complicated, and so it’s a huge and valuable volunteer service that these attorneys are providing.”
To receive asylum, Anderson said applicants must fill out a complex form and then meet with an immigration officer. The application can sometimes be approved in short order, but often times it can take longer for an officer to verify applicants’ claims.
Submitting to interrogations can be particularly traumatic for asylum seekers like Mpangaje, since many are fleeing countries where the authorities are threatening their lives.
“In my country, when you see a policeman, you see someone who can kill you, can steal you money, can do everything,” he said.
Last year, First Parish took on three asylum seekers – not because the church planned to, but because there was a knock on the door. The church paid about $4,000 from the minister’s discretionary fund, which is earmarked for food and start-up housing costs for the less fortunate.
Safe Harbor is the church’s formal response to what it sees as a growing community need.
Safe Harbor co-Chairwoman Kitty Coughlin said she hopes the effort will not only help the three asylum seekers. She hopes it will encourage other faith-based groups to form a coalition to help address the need.
“We couldn’t turn our backs on this,” Coughlin said. “We realize this is a new chapter for our church.”
Coughlin said refugees from countries like Somalia and Sudan, which have formal partnerships with the U.S. can rely on Catholic Charities to help find them housing and jobs.
But, unlike U.S.-recognized refugees, asylum seekers cannot get jobs and earn paychecks until they are granted asylum. In order to get asylum, they must pay for attorneys and undergo the scrutiny from immigration officials.
“There is absolutely no rationale on how our government handles these people,” Coughlin said.
Coughlin said Mpangaje, whom she calls the “Bob Dylan on Burundi,” is like the other two asylum seekers – educated, hard-working and socially aware.
“They come to us with skills and they come with convictions,” she said. “They’re extraordinary individuals.”
Before getting help from the church, Mpangaje said he stayed at the Preble Street Resource Center. Now, he participates in the city’s workfare program, which allows him to exchange work for food vouchers and subsidized housing in the Parkside neighborhood.
In Burundi, Mpangaje not only recorded and performed his own music, but wrote songs for other musicians.
Mpangaje said the message behind his hip-hop music earned him the nickname “Balozi,” meaning ambassador. But to the authorities, Mpangaje was no diplomat – he was a practical menace.
One day in early 2010, Mpangaje said the authorities arrested and beat him after he refused to sing lyrics that were supportive of the government. It was, after all, an election year, he said.
“They wanted me to work for them,” he said. “They wanted me to write something that say, ‘Oh, we have good president, good government, you know, people should be happy for that.'”
But his conscience would not allow him to do that.
“I know I am going to die,” he said. “But I don’t want to die like a pet. I want to die like a man.”
He spent five days in jail, he said. Then the authorities went to his house, threatened his wife, 4-year-old daughter and year-old son. They also confiscated his computer, his official documents and instruments, forcing him into hiding.
“At that time I didn’t have a choice,” he said. “The government wanted to do something bad against me because my music was involved, you know, in political issues. The government put me in jail and they tried to kill me.”
Scared by threats against his life, he secured passage to the U.S. on a year-long visa that has since expired. His first stop was Texas, where he met a trucker, who he said bought him a Greyhound ticket to Maine. He arrived last December, in the biting cold.
“By chance, God helped me to escape,” he said. “I didn’t want to ask where I’m going or what I want to do, because I didn’t have any choice.”
Mpangaje, who speaks four languages and is quickly learning English as a fifth, said he is slowly adjusting to America. He hopes to start writing sings in English, but he must first get a better understanding of American culture.
But more than music, he hopes to successfully receive asylum, so he can be reunited with his family.
“I just want to be a good daddy,” he said.
Anderson, of ILAP, said he is encouraged that faith-based groups like the UUC are doing more than simply recognizing a need.
“They’re not just talking about it – they’re doing something about it,” he said. “It’s tremendous.”
The First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland is hosting a fundraiser on Nov. 27 for Safe Harbor, a new legal fund for asylum seekers like Luc Mpangaje, 31, who fled Burundi. The event from 4-7 p.m. at 425 Congress St. will include music by Boston’s Adam Ezra Band, the Maine Songwriters’ Association and Burundi musicians and singers. Meal tickets and concert tickets will be used for raffle prizes for all ages. Admission is $10 (kids age 16 and under free).