LEWISTON — After civil war broke out in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, Maxwell Chicuta lost his parents. At 8 years old, he lived on the streets.

“I’m not talking about the streets of Portland or Lewiston,” he said. On the streets of Congo, “you have nothing. You’re beaten by soldiers.”

Today, Chicuta works for the Engineering Department at Maine Medical Center and is working on his doctorate degree. He is the chairman of Portland’s Community Development Block Grant Board and volunteers for a number of organizations. He’s a big advocate of community involvement.

Serving as the guest speaker Thursday at the Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library, Chicuta is considered an emerging leader in Portland. His message was that a safe, livable community needs people who give back.

He shared how he found out war had broken out in Congo when he was a boy.

Walking to school in 1978, “I heard drums,” he said. Passing a teacher’s home, the teacher told him to go back: there was war.

“The sound of drums were gunshots,” he said.

His father, who worked nights as a security guard, “never made it home. I never saw my dad.”

His mother left for another village. In Congo, it’s not unusual for people to disappear, Chicuta said.

With no place to go, he lived on the streets.

“Fortunately, I never became a child soldier,” he said.

Eventually his grandfather came and took him to his village, where he helped his grandfather farm. There was no school in that village.

At 14, Chicuta had his own cornfield, allowing him to sell corn. He found a way to go back to primary school outside his village.

“Kids laughed at me because I was so old,” he said. There was no high school. “My grandfather didn’t have money.”

Selling corn led to him selling candy, which led to him having a kiosk. By age 24, he had his own store and employed two. But conflict in the Congo continued.

He and his wife came to the United States for opportunity.

When he arrived in Portland in 2003, he had nothing but $17 in his pocket.

He spent two weeks at a homeless shelter. In an era before Portland’s housing shortage, the city helped him and his wife find an apartment.

Chicuta said he was willing to do any work. Unable to speak English and with no high school diploma, he got a job as a janitor at Maine Medical Center, cleaning toilets and floors.

Chicuta went to adult education to learn English. Someone there took notice of him and his good attitude, and predicted he’d go far.

After receiving his general education diploma, “I was like, ‘I’m going to college,’” he said. He went to Southern Maine Community College and took the entrance exam. He did well in math but failed English. Determined, he took the exam three more times until he passed.

After receiving his associate degree, he got his bachelor’s degree, then his master’s. As his level of education rose, so did his job status. He went from working as a janitor to the hospital’s Engineering Department.

He was able to do that “because of help from people in my community,” Chicuta said. Wanting to give back, he volunteered at the soup kitchen, the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, the United Way and eventually the city’s Community Development Block Grant board.

Reflecting on his experience, Chicuta said arriving immigrants need help.

“They can’t communicate,” he said. “Language is the key to development for everyone.”

Also key is attitude and a willingness to give back, he said.

“I don’t like to see someone (say) ‘I’m a doctor. I can’t speak English. I can’t work,’” he said. Instead, the doctor who can’t speak English should say, “’Let me clean the floor while I’m learning the language.’” New arrivals need to be shown “how to live, how to work hard,” he said.


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