LEWISTON — For 12 years, Kalilwa Kalunga lived as a refugee in Zambia. He moved to Lewiston two years ago with his wife and their five children.
“Now,” he said Saturday, “we start again as refugees.”
Kalunga and his family lived in one of the Pierce Street apartment buildings that burned Friday night. They were relocated to the emergency shelter at Lewiston High School. On Saturday afternoon, some members of his family were at the YWCA of Central Maine picking up clothes and shoes.
His children are “feeling bad,” he said, upset about losing their home.
Turning away and wiping a tear, he said, “We begin again. I don’t know how to feel about it. We’re trying to fix a life here.”
The family plans to stay at the high school again Saturday night, but Kalunga said he has no idea where they will go from there. But, they will definitely stay in Lewiston.
“This is our home,” he said.
Kalunga and his family were among about 100 people ousted from their apartments Friday night; of those, about 50 stayed overnight at the high school.
According to Scott Parker of Bethel, a Red Cross disaster assistance team member and shelter manager at the school, the Red Cross brought food and 38 cots to the high school around midnight, bracing for an estimated 100 displaced people to arrive.
Principal Gus LeBlanc arrived to help with the set-up, as did Athletic Director Jason Fuller.
Although fewer than expected stayed overnight because some families stayed with friends, or just didn’t get any sleep, Parker said the Red Cross is anticipating more people will stay overnight Saturday.
He said they were ready.
Local restaurants volunteered breakfast and lunch Saturday, and DaVinci’s Eatery was to provide dinner Saturday night.
Most of the displaced families are Somali immigrants. The Red Cross brought in a number of interpreters to help guide families through the intake process.
As each family arrived, they were given a number and asked to wait to speak to a Red Cross intake officer. During intake, the medical, emotional and housing needs of the families were assessed so a placement plan could be developed.
Interpreters also were used by investigators from the State Fire Marshal’s Office, who were interviewing fire victims as they arrived at the school.
High School junior Mohammad Awil came to the school to help. He said his friend lived in one of the burned-out apartments on Pierce Street, and he offered to help translate for the Red Cross volunteers.
Awil’s friend didn’t get any sleep overnight and arrived at school Saturday morning to take the SATs with the rest of the junior class, Awil said.
He said some of the families he had talked to were feeling stressed because they had no place to go, but were glad to have the assistance of the Red Cross to help them get organized.
Parker said the people who arrived for assistance were cordial and eager to cooperate with volunteers.
“It’s amazing how much fortitude these people have,” he said. A Red Cross volunteer, who heard Parker as she walked by, turned and said, “That’s because this isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to them.”
The Red Cross hoped to have a placement plan for each family by Monday morning before school begins, but Parker said schools have been used as shelters while school has been in session before and that might happen in this case.
In addition to students taking the SATs, a number of lacrosse players and other athletes showed up at the school Saturday morning for practice, adding to the crowds in the hallways and gymnasium.
According to Parker, the volume of people displaced by the Pierce Street fire necessitated opening the emergency shelter because the Red Cross doesn’t have the resources to offer vouchers for motel accommodations for so many, especially after it had distributed dozens of vouchers as a result of Monday's fire on Blake Street that displaced 75 people.
Special education teacher Rachel Nadeau came to the school after breakfast to volunteer, and offered to gather the younger children to read aloud.
After she collected a pile of books from her classroom and was walking back to the gym, one of her students saw her and ran up and hugged her. Nadeau, who hugged the student back, said, “I was so worried about you.”
As other students gathered around, Nadeau asked how they all were. They said they were fine. Scared, but fine. Some were barefoot because they didn’t have time to grab shoes before running from their homes.
Nadeau said: “We have great kids here. They’re all good.”
Inside the school gym, a group of middle-school-aged children were playing basketball while younger children were doing puzzles and playing games. A TV was on, but no one sat watching it. The older children were outside playing soccer.
Outside, an older woman struggled along the sidewalk to the school. Asked if she needed help, she said she was hungry. Hours before, outside her apartment building, she was told someone at the school would give her food, so she walked to the school from Pierce Street. She hadn’t been able to locate her daughter by the time she got to the school, but when she arrived many of her neighbors were there and told the woman her daughter was safe.
They made sure she got a meal, and they helped her to the YWCA to get fresh clothes.
At the Y, Youth Program Director Melissa Jackson was busy directing donations and helping families select items. She said she was amazed by the volume of donations and strength of community support she was seeing: all kinds of people, she said, from all walks of life.
The employees were thrilled that so many items had been donated, but YWCA Executive Director Kathy Durgin-Leighton said sorting the donations is labor-intensive and they could use more help. Even if someone only has a couple of hours to spare, they’re welcome to stop by, she said.
The Y will be open to take donations and help fire victims until 7 p.m. Saturday, again from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday and then during the week from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Jessica Golder, who lives two blocks from the Blake Street fire and a block from the fire at Pierce Street, has been volunteering at the Y all week.
“Everybody’s coming together to help,” she said. “This is a community affair,” she said, conducted in a state of what she called “controlled chaos.”
“People are coming down to get what they need,” Golder said, and were not getting only clothes and coats. They were getting comfort and sympathy from volunteers, and words of encouragement that help is available.
Some of the adults who came to help sort donations brought their children along, and some of those children brought their allowance money to give to fire victims, she said.
“I know Lewiston is a huge city,” Golder said, "(but) right now it feels like a small town.”