In the middle of the Portland Expo, between rows of cots and tables, several young children dance and sing while others kick a ball.

But for Oscar Kitakya, a 31-year-old Portland resident and volunteer, there is no time for games. “I’ve been too busy,” he says, laughing.

Kitakya has been busy. Over the last two weeks, he has volunteered his time at the Expo, where more than 200 asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola have been sheltered after arriving in Portland from the southern U.S. border. For more than six hours a day – and even more on the weekends – Kitakya interprets Lingala, which is a Bantu language, and French and assists with other tasks such as transporting people and food.

Mufalo Chitam, the executive director of Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, works last week in the emergency shelter set up at the Portland Expo for asylum seekers. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Kitakya is one of nearly 1,200 community members who filled out applications in the first week to assist the city after an influx of asylum seekers arrived in Portland from the two African nations. The online application was posted by United Way of Greater Portland after the city asked the agency to screen community volunteers.

The city could not say how many volunteers have assisted so far at the Expo, but has at least four or five general volunteers at all times. General volunteers play with the children, clean and perform other duties as they arise. During meals, there are 12 additional volunteers who serve food.

Volunteers who speak French, Portuguese or Lingala are a crucial bridge between the asylum seekers and city employees, lawyers and doctors. The city’s top priority is finding people who speak Portuguese and Lingala, according to Bridget Rauscher of the city’s Public Health Division for the city. As of last week, 365 volunteers noted they speak at least one of the three languages. French and Lingala are commonly spoken languages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Portuguese is spoken in Angola.

Kitakya is among the volunteers from within Portland’s immigrant community. As someone who has been seeking asylum for the last two years, he has connected with new arrivals who have similar experiences. Kitakya fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo for India 10 years ago after political conflict broke out, and has been in the United States for the last two. He understands some of the trauma the families have endured.

“I lost my friends who have been killed and chopped and burned in front of me. So for those people who are here, I know, we have the same feeling. But they (are) still fresh with the bad feeling,” Kitakya said. “I usually tell them they have to be strong enough. The best thing is I tell them for the asylum seeker, is by meeting a lawyer who has the ability to lead or to guide them for the next procedure.”

Kitakya says his employer at Residential and Community Support Services, where he is a direct-support professional, has been supportive and allowed him to take time off to volunteer.

Although volunteer interpreters play crucial roles such as helping connect immigrants with lawyers and medical professionals, they also provide smaller, day-to-day comforts.

Stefanie Trice Gill, a volunteer interpreter of French and Portuguese, said she arrived the morning after the families’ first night at the Expo – and first in Maine – and found a lot of people remarking in their native languages about how cold it was during the night. Staff hadn’t been aware and, thinking the Expo was too hot, turned on cooling systems, she said.

BACKGROUND CHECKS

All volunteers are being screened before they get to help inside the Expo. Those who have not been screened have been turned away.

The state of Maine has given United Way permission to complete background checks using State Bureau of Identification, which includes a criminal history review. After completing a check, United Way sends approved applications to the city. So far, United Way has processed 285 applications and would not say whether any have been rejected. From there, the city assigns volunteers’ roles based on specific skill sets they have marked on their application.  

As of last Tuesday, United Way was not accepting new applications in order to process the current applications. 

Some volunteer interpreters are certified interpreters, while others are not certified, but indicated on the volunteer application that they are fluent or proficient in the language. Jessica Grondin, director of communications for the city of Portland, said interpreters are being processed through United Way, which also is contacting established agencies that employ interpreters.  

The Congolese Community Association of Maine has played a large role in interpreting and providing other assistance. Members of the group have volunteered by taking shifts at the Expo and cooking traditional African food.

Papy Bongibo, the association’s president, said it is connected to more than 2,000 Congolese residents in Maine. He said that the community support has been tremendous and that many of the newly arrived families reported having been “treated like humans” by volunteers and staff.

Many Maine organizations have members and employees who are volunteering on their own time.

Nicole Lewis, 53, president of the Maine Peace Corps Association – a group for returned Peace Corps members residing in Maine – volunteered at the Expo three times this past week. She has been serving food and is able to communicate with people in French.

While in the Peace Corps, Lewis served in Senegal from 1990 to 1993. She and her husband, who served in Swaziland – now called Eswatini – said their time in Africa motivated them to volunteer.

“(My husband and I) were shown so much hospitality, and generosity and kindness when we lived in Africa, that we felt compelled to do anything we can to assist,” said Lewis.

Lewis, who moved from Washington, D.C., to Cape Elizabeth five years ago, has found the Portland community to be accepting and welcoming, and feels that the outpouring of support for the asylum seekers is a testament to that.

“Mainers are very welcoming, and very compassionate, and very giving,” she said. “I’ve been incredibly impressed with the support from the city and businesses and local nonprofits.”

Sarah Carnahan plays catch with a child last week in the emergency shelter for asylum-seeking families set up at the Portland Expo. Carnahan came down for the day from the town of Vienna to volunteer. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When Patrick Abedi of Portland hasn’t been working at Woodfords Preschool as a special education teacher, he and his wife and young daughter have been volunteering at the Expo. Over the last two weeks, Abedi has become a jack-of-all trades. As a French and Lingala speaker, he has been able to communicate with families. When he is not talking to families, he is buying or picking up food.

Another Mainer, Sarah Carnahan, 36, a Vienna resident and a counselor at the University of Maine at Farmington, volunteered at the Expo for a day last week.  

Throughout the morning, she served food, cleaned and played with the children. Carnahan is a part of Maine’s Behavioral Health Disaster Response team – a team of volunteers that assist individuals in coping with the immediate psychological aftermath of a disaster. The response team is not involved at the Expo, but her training and experience has meant she is able to self-direct herself to tasks where assistance is needed, she said. 

Carnahan is one of many volunteers who do not speak French, Portuguese or Lingala, but have found other ways to connect – especially with the children.

“I am an English-only speaker. So being able to play (with the kids) and having some of them doing my hair is a way to really connect without that language barrier,” Carnahan said.

OTHER WAYS TO HELP

Ginger Roberts-Scott – director of the Maine Women, Infant and Children nutrition program – is among those bringing a different skill set to the Expo.

She heard about a request to lead activities at the Expo during a morning meeting at work. As a registered yoga teacher, she believed yoga would benefit the children.

And since the city has paid staff members at the Expo around the clock, Roberts-Scott hopes that yoga will help them relax and also be a good break. So she will be leading classes for both groups.

Unlike many who had heard about volunteer positions through work or an organization, Scarborough resident Julie Haddad, 51, submitted an application after watching the news. Although she does not speak French, Portuguese or Lingala, she says she connects with children through hand gestures and activities such as coloring books, bubbles and coloring supplies.

The city plans to move families out of the Expo and into temporary housing – an effort City Manager Jon Jennings refers to as “phase two.” Both United Way and the city are unsure how volunteer roles will change over the next few weeks as that phase begins, but they predict there will still be a need for community volunteers.