Arlette Vanga tickles William Bondo, 1, as families from the Democratic Republic of Congo move donated furniture into their apartments in Lewiston on Friday. From left, taking a break from moving furniture, are Marlene Zabibu and her son David, Naomie Bondo and her son William, and Vanga with her daughters Charlotte, 1, and Joya, 3. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Ten families, most of them originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, are moving from the temporary shelter of the Portland Expo to permanent homes in Lewiston.

The families began moving last week into privately owned apartments scattered around the downtown and Little Canada. On Friday, the Congolese Community of Maine, a Portland-based nonprofit with ties to Lewiston, helped deliver used kitchen tables, rocking chairs, dressers and mattresses to nine of those families. The items came from Furniture Friends, a Westbrook nonprofit that provides donated furniture to people in need.

The apartments are not part of Lewiston’s public housing stock.

The 10 families include more than 30 men, women and children. While most are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a war-torn country in central Africa, others are from Mali and Angola. All of the families are seeking asylum in the United States, a legal request made by people who fear persecution in their home countries.

By federal law, people seeking asylum are not allowed to apply for a work permit until they have submitted their asylum application and at least 150 days have passed. Portland will maintain responsibility for the 10 families for their first month in Lewiston, including paying their rent, food and other necessities. After that, eligible families can get help from Lewiston’s General Assistance program, one of very few government assistance programs open to people seeking asylum.

The state reimburses Lewiston for 70 percent of its General Assistance spending.


Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett said the city has seen a “significant reduction” in General Assistance costs, so city officials don’t anticipate a dramatic budget increase with these 10 new families.

Jordan Miezi, 10, helps his father move a mattress up the stairwell of an apartment building in Lewiston on Friday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“This isn’t a situation like what the city faced back when we first started seeing a huge number of immigrants come, nor is it similar to the big spike we had in asylum-seekers in 2016, 2017,” Barrett said. “So at this point it should be fairly manageable.”

Barrett said almost no new immigrants have moved to Lewiston recently because fewer people are being allowed into the United States.

Lewiston’s 10 families are among the hundreds of people who have been staying at the Expo this summer. Portland officials have set an Aug. 15 deadline to close the shelter and move everyone out so the Maine Red Claws can move in to prepare for basketball season.

Arlette Vanga, 34, her husband and their three children moved last week into an apartment in Lewiston’s Little Canada — a neighborhood named for the French Canadian immigrants who settled there. Through an interpreter, she said she felt grateful for both Portland’s help while at the Expo and the family’s new home in Lewiston.

“Even if we are still struggling with some difficulties, we thank the city while we are in Portland for sheltering us, for feeding us. They’ve done a lot of things for us while we have been here,” she said. “We are really grateful for this warm welcome.”


Vanga, though, was concerned about the future. She has a husband and three children, ages 10, 3 and 1, and said Lewiston’s General Assistance office told her that her family would be eligible for a total of $61 a week. Since she and her husband aren’t allowed to work, she didn’t know how she was going to buy necessities, such as diapers and food, for her family of five.

Paola Bosala, 2, naps on the kitchen floor while his mother, Horneli, moves donated furniture into her apartment in Lewiston on Friday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“I don’t have money to buy clothes, food, milk. I don’t have that money, so it’s a little bit hard for us,” she said.

Heritier Nosso, an adviser at the Congolese Community of Maine, helped move in furniture Friday. He was once in Vanga’s position. He had been a lawyer in the Democratic Republic of Congo when he fled to the United States.

“We love Maine and Maine is a very welcoming state,” said Nosso, who moved to Maine four years ago.

New people seeking asylum need help now, he said, but they won’t always. He offered himself as an example — an asylum-seeker who now works at Healthy Androscoggin in Lewiston, volunteers in the community, bought a car, pays taxes and donates to fellow Mainers in need.

“Immigrants give more than they receive,” he said, adding, “After getting the assistance, immigrants work here, they pay their taxes here, they contribute to the economy of men.”

He said 21% of Maine immigrants have bachelor’s degrees. They bring skills, he said, they fill jobs that would otherwise go unfilled, they start businesses that employ other people.

“Immigration is needed in Maine,” he said.

Portland has received more than $900,000 in donations to help people seeking asylum. A spokeswoman for Portland said the City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on putting that money in the city’s social services budget to further assist current and future people seeking asylum in Portland.

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