AUBURN — They’ve fled the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon, leaving Africa, sometimes leaving everything, and they’ve chosen to settle in western Maine.
They don’t come with much and they don’t get federal aid. Many don’t speak English. Most can’t legally work for months.
“People might say, ‘Who are these people?’ They are just people, like any other,” said the Rev. Jean-Pierre Tshamala.
A Democratic Republic of Congo native who moved to the United States seeking political asylum 14 years ago, Tshamala began ministering to the new arrivals last May, a flock of 30 meeting in a Lewiston basement. It’s grown to a congregation of 100, borrowing an Auburn church in its off-hours, with a service in English and French.
Tshamala’s evangelical Church Of All Nations plans a grand opening from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16, inside Grace Community Church. It will be a sort of public unveiling.
He moved to Auburn two months ago from Portland to make a full-time, unpaid job of helping other asylum-seekers settle in Lewiston. There’s been at least one new family in the crowd every Sunday.
Tshamala’s oldest child was 10 when the family moved to the United States. “I’m looking back myself at what this country has done for me,” he said. “Now (my son) is 24 and he’s working on his master’s (degree). It’s about giving back and helping people.”
Tshamala, 49, married and a father of five, said he was a doctor back in the Congo. Asked why they left, he said, “I was persecuted in my country, let me put it that way.”
The family arrived with only several bags of clothing and stayed in Washington state for two months before moving to Maine. He attended seminary school in the states and served as associate pastor at the North Deering Alliance Church in Portland. The Tshamalas became U.S. citizens in 2012.
According to Lewiston’s General Assistance records, 33 asylum-seeking cases involving 85 people were helped here between June 2012 and July 2013. Thirty-nine cases, 19 of them new, with a total of 103 people, were helped over the next six months.
Asylum-seekers, who arrive in the country on short-term visas and look to stay, aren’t placed or settled like refugees, who apply to move here from outside the country and can receive government assistance. The federal government provides no money to support asylum-seekers.
“These people have gone through tragedies in their countries,” Tshamala said. “People just show up; each one of them has a different story.”
The people moving now to Lewiston speak French, Swahili, Lingala and Portuguese. Some are educated, with credentials that aren’t recognized in the U.S. They often aren’t allowed to hold jobs until after months-long waits for work permits.
“(Why they are) coming to Maine and not another state, that I don’t know,” he said.
It could be word of mouth, Tshamala said. Or it could be that upon arrival in the U.S., they hear that if they move to Maine, cities will help — Maine is one of a few states with General Assistance available to those seeking asylum, but that might change if Gov. Paul LePage has his way. (See related story.)
“Most of them are Christian,” Tshamala said. “They need a pastor to help them, so I thought about what I went through myself. They need clothing. There are physical needs, educational needs and spiritual needs. That’s why I came, to help them.”
He takes people to the General Assistance office, sometimes serving as a translator, points them toward adult education and helps them fill out asylum applications.
“Getting an apartment, it’s OK, but getting other things, it’s a problem,” he said. “They need furniture; they need other things to start a new life.”
That’s where parishioners of the Grace Community Church have stepped in. For months, they’ve been making personal donations and watching estate sales, coming in at the closing to ask what families plan to do with things that didn’t sell, Pastor Dave Bochtler said.
Donations are cleaned, labeled and carted to the church gym, where new arrivals frequently “shop” on Saturdays for dishware, furniture and clothes.
“Our people understand the economy of the kingdom of God, that he gives some (people) more than they need so we can share with others that do need,” Bochtler said. “It’s been really good for our congregation. It’s really given us an avenue to exercise charity, to be a blessing to other people.
“Sometimes, it’s real easy to look at people with a label, that those people are ‘them’ instead of seeing them as ‘us,'” he said. “They’re in our community.”
Tshamala said Grace Community Church has “provided help beyond what we can imagine.”
He has goals of setting up an office locally, eventually having funds for a stand-alone church and setting up local job-training programs that help newcomers find work and fit into the community.
“We are praying that it can happen,” he said.