Santos Panzo of Lewiston stands at his warehouse job at Core-Mark in Gardiner. Panzo, originally from Angola where he worked as a manager on a liquid natural gas project, said he initially felt “unhire-able” until Core-Mark gave him a chance. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Deko Diriye left a Kenyan refugee camp when she was three months pregnant. Her husband, who stayed behind, has yet to meet their now 5-year-old daughter. Last March, Diriye lost her low-pay, irregular-hours hotel housekeeping job at the start of the pandemic.

Working through an employment agency, she’s landed a job earning $21 an hour at Abbott Labs — enough, she hopes, to bring her husband to the states so he can meet their child and, with his help at home, Diriye can someday go to school.

Santos Panzo’s 7-year-old son asked him before he left Angola if he could be an American when he grows up.

“Because he used to see how people act in movies. I said, ‘You know what, Daddy will do his best,'” said Panzo, 35.

In Angola, he had a job in environmental health and safety on a liquid natural gas project. Within weeks of arriving in Lewiston last summer, he found work at a Core-Mark warehouse in Gardiner.

“Where other companies were looking for stuff that I didn’t have at the time — like a driver’s license, car — with Core-Mark it was different. They didn’t ask me those kind of things,” he said. “If you teach me, I learn fast. I work hard. … I told them, ‘Look, I don’t know nothing about this, but I give you my word.'”

He’s studying to grow his credentials again here and bring his family over.

Habso Abdirizak had been in Lewiston for two weeks, alone in a new country, when she sat for the first job interview in her life. She was devastated when she didn’t get a job making doughnuts.

“I cried all day,” said Abdirizak, 27. “But I realized that was a chance. They tell me no, I’ll say, thank you, then I’ll go back to (assess) is something wrong with me, do I need to take a class, do I need to polish my CV, do I improve my interview skills or what do I need to get this job.'”

A week later, she was in Walmart. Today, she’s a third-year biology major at the University of Southern Maine and works drawing blood at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston. She hasn’t decided if she wants to be a doctor or a pharmacist.

Lewiston has been home to a growing immigrant population for more than 20 years and new arrivals are increasingly diverse: Before the pandemic, Literacy Volunteers in Androscoggin County worked with people from 42 countries in just one year.

Estimated at about 6,000 people, or 16% of Lewiston’s population, it’s unclear how many have found work. No one — not the state or the city — tracks it. But there’s a growing sense that it’s an improved situation from even just a few years ago.

“One mom once told me, ‘I don’t care if they beat me, I don’t care how far I need to drive, I will do anything.’ People were desperate,” said Erin Reed, executive director of Lewiston’s Trinity Jubilee Center. “Now, someone will ask us for help applying at three companies and by the time we get to the third application, the first company is already calling to schedule an interview.”

BEING STRONGER THAN BARRIERS

Abdikhadar Shire founded the nonprofit AK Health and Social Services a year ago, initially helping New Mainers navigate the unemployment system. Many, like his wife who worked in a shoe shop, lost jobs in the pandemic.

“I thought that they needed somebody that speaks their language, an organization that understands what they need, an organization that wanted to advocate, not just look at their qualifications, but to advocate for them,” Shire, 31, said.

Originally from Somalia, he lives with his wife and two children in Lewiston. He speaks English, Swahili and some Arabic and hears about the nagging barriers: Lack of U.S. work experience. Lack of a driver’s license or car. Limited English. And once landing a job, often, the need for child care.

This past year, “a lot of families had kids doing online learning and you had to stay at home,” Shire said. “These kids were getting absentees from school … When the kids are home and the parent does not speak English, the kids can tell the parents, ‘I’m in a Zoom class,’ but they’re doing something else on the computer, they’re not going to class.”

He’s acted as a liaison with employment agencies, helped fill out applications and offered to interpret if companies have questions.

Of all of the funding his agency sees — including funds from the state of Maine for social services work, the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention for vaccine outreach, and local funding for a day care/school program for Zoomers with working parents — workforce development is the least funded, yet with the potential for the most impact, Shire said.

“It is the program that needs support from the state, the foundations and the city of Lewiston,” he said. “In my mind, about 30% have difficulty getting employment, but then when you go up (in age), older people that did not go to school, I think even though some of them have jobs, I think it’s more than 80% that they’re not able to get employment.”

Trinity Jubilee Center helps about 400 people annually with work searches, 90% of whom last year were from Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti or Somalia, said Reed.

Between 100 and 200 of the people they help find jobs each year.

“It’s harder to get a job without connections, like someone saying, ‘Oh, my cousin is a manager there, I’ll put in a good word for you,'” said Reed. “But honestly with some of these immigrants, their work ethic is stronger than whatever barriers they’re facing. They are willing to work, they show up on time, they take extra shifts, they take on second jobs. They do jobs a lot of people won’t do, like janitorial work, meat processing, working in group homes.”

Reed, a Bates College graduate originally from Massachusetts, also feels a personal connection.

“My grandparents came to this country with nothing and my grandpa worked in a factory and my grandma was a housekeeper: I see them when I’m helping people apply for these jobs,” she said.

Reed recently connected with a man Trinity helped with his first applications four years ago. He’s been working two full-time jobs ever since and is putting in an offer on a house.

“One of our elderly homeless clients finally got into a nursing home and I went to visit him and the CNA taking care of him was one of our immigrant clients — we had helped him apply for his job at that nursing home,” Reed said.

Gael Karomba’s company, Happy Haven in Auburn, is a bridge for many recent immigrants to a job in the community. Submitted photo

‘A MATTER OF SURVIVAL’

Gael Karomba grew up in Rwanda and three years ago founded Happy Haven in Auburn, a company of direct support professionals who provide care and help with life skills to group home clients.

Roughly 80% of his 200 employees are recent immigrants. They need to be able to participate in trainings in English.

The vast majority work two full-time jobs, for his and another agency. They’re starting from scratch with hustle, he said.

“People don’t want to work in this (group home) industry because it’s really taxing emotionally,” he said. “Sometimes you have to work with someone, and you care for them, but they’re cursing and yelling and kicking …

“In Asia and Africa, and all those developing countries, we don’t have institutions or the government doesn’t take care of people that have disabilities,” Karomba added. “So if you have someone like this in your family, you keep them home, you take care of them, that’s how it is. And that’s why you’re seeing now New Mainers, a lot of immigrants, saturating this industry. For people like us, taking care of people is something that’s fulfilling, and you get paid for it — that’s even more of a win.”

He’s been in the U.S. since 2013 and in Lewiston since 2016. Karomba said he understands hurdles employers face in reaching out to the immigrant community.

“The New Mainers sometimes, I don’t know how to put this, sometimes they are really shy people,” he said. “In the African culture or Asian culture, it’s not in our culture to sell ourselves, to stick out, ‘Hey, this is who I am, this is what I can do.’ They tend to be more reserved. So if they come and they find their community, they are just going to stay in their little bubble.”

Employers are left wondering, “How do I approach those people? How do I get to know what they can do? It’s really a problem. That’s why I’m also trying to be a voice and trying to be a bridge, really, to employers and bring some bright, young talent from the immigrant community and we can connect the two,” he said.

Prior to the pandemic, Literacy Volunteers of Androscoggin County averaged 175 people a year going through its program, 74% of whom were born outside the U.S., according to Executive Director Tahlia Chamberlain.

That’s slowed since the sessions moved virtually, but the program is still looking for tutors and students.

Almost everyone who applies for help is looking for work or to improve skills to move on to better work.

“The vast majority of folks we get from other countries, it’s a matter of survival, and they also have a fantastic work ethic, almost all of our students do,” she said. “We’ve got people that are waiting on tables or pushing carts (who) were able to work with their tutor for a year or two and they were able to get professional jobs.”

Before COVID-19, it was easier to find work. She sees people these days taking what they can find.

“Some are cobbling together two or three part-time jobs,” Chamberlain said. “It’s unfortunate. I remember I used to do that, work at least two jobs to pay the bills. They are definitely working toward one job that provides a living wage where they can also utilize the skills that they came to Maine with. That’s all to the good for Maine employers, and the community, as well as these folks and their families, because you want highly skilled workers and motivated workers at your place of business.”

‘YOU’D BE AMAZED’

Core-Mark first reached out to Trinity four years ago, needing more employees in a tight labor market.

“We were gung-ho with absolutely no reservations,” Core-Mark Human Resources Director Susan Smith said. “In hindsight, I probably, from an HR perspective, would have educated our current employee base a little bit on enveloping a new culture in the workplace. I would say today we’ve come huge strides and we’ve learned a lot as well.”

The Gardiner-based company, which services convenience stores and small retailers with fresh grocery stock, initially arranged a van from Lewiston to shuttle employees. It’s added prayer rooms and makes sure to offer halal meats at company barbecues.

The first wave of those New Mainer hires, seven to eight people, have moved on, she said, and the company has about 10, out of a staff of 260, now.

“The employment talent pools in the state of Maine have been incredibly hard,” Smith said. “You’d be amazed at the integrity and the fortitude, for the most part. They learn very quickly.”

Panzo, who has worked there since June, said he moved to the U.S. looking for better opportunities for himself, his wife and their three children.

Having a job helped him secure a car loan. He got his driver’s license last month.

“I failed it three times — I’ve never failed anything in my life,” he said. “The life lesson is I tried. I passed the last test I had and I’m driving on my own.”

He works second shift so mornings are free for classes. He wants to get back into health and safety work.

“In five to 10 years, with all this training I’m doing, I see myself at the management level,” Panzo said.

Maybe, if there’s an opening, even at Core-Mark.

FOUR PROFILES IN DETERMINATION

HABSO ABDIRIZAK: ‘What excuse do I have? I’m going to keep pushing through.’

Habso Abdirizak stands in front of Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston where she works in the lab. She’s pursuing her bachelor’s degree. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

When Habso Abdirizak moved to the U.S. five years ago, all alone at 22, she remembers calling her mom in Kenya, stressed.

“I was like, ‘I hate this life in America.’ She was like, ‘What do you want?'” Abdirizak said. “I had all these dreams, American dreams, but when I got here, it was hard. For a couple months I was crying, calling my mom. My mom was like, it takes time, you can adjust, go out. Do something.”

Abdirizak, who moved from Somalia to a Kenyan refugee camp at age 13, found Lewiston quickly after arriving in the states.

Turned down at her first job interview, she landed the second, working second shift at Walmart unloading trucks and stocking shelves. She started going after her high school diploma and then an associate’s degree at Central Maine Community College.

As part of settling into the community, she also started volunteering at a local food pantry.

It was eye-opening to see homeless Americans, she said. “This one mom, she gave birth on Friday and she volunteered on Tuesday and I was like, ‘She just had a baby and she lives in a homeless shelter.’ What excuse do I have? I’m going to keep pushing through.”

Abdirizak is pursuing her bachelor’s degree, weighing her future options — maybe a doctor, maybe a pharmacist — working at a local hospital and glad she stuck it out in the beginning.

“When I got here, people were like, ‘It’s hard to get a job,’ and it’s true, it’s hard to get a job,” she said. “But if you can push and try, take a course, English classes or community college, there’s opportunity out there, but you have to struggle to get that opportunity. You have to see a lot of no’s until you get what you want.”

DEKO DIRIYE: ‘I’m a person that doesn’t like handouts.’

Deko Diriye of Lewiston, a production worker at Abbott Labs in Westbrook, is hoping to bring her husband to the U.S. from South Africa in the next year. Because Diriye was pregnant when she left a Kenyan refugee camp, her husband has never met the couple’s 5-year-old daughter. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Deko Diriye found work in 2017 at a Freeport hotel, a month after arriving in Lewiston. It involved heavy lifting and irregular hours.

The job supported her and her 5-year-old daughter but didn’t pay enough to bring her husband over from South Africa, and in March 2020, it ended with the pandemic.

She was excited to find work last August at Abbott Labs in Westbrook through an employment agency.

The income should be enough to demonstrate to immigration officials that she can support the whole family, said Abdikhadar Shire, whose nonprofit AK Health and Social Services supports new Mainers.

“She’s hoping that (her husband) will come within this year,” Shire said, translating for Diriye. “That makes her very happy.”

Diriye, 29, works on the production line, distributing supplies. She likes the job and that it keeps her walking around all day.

“A lot of people speak Somali or Swahili, some of them speak English, so they help each other,” Shire said. “When they’re not around each other, the supervisor can communicate to one of them.”

It was a hard six months sitting at home between jobs, she said.

“I’m a person that doesn’t like handouts,” she said. “Before I got this job, I was getting benefits from the government; I wasn’t so proud of that. But right now with a stable job, I’m no longer getting food stamps and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) support. It really makes me proud.”

AMINA WARDERE: ‘I feel like I complete one great thing in my life.’

Amina Wardere of Lewiston, who also works at Abbott Labs, is hoping to someday pursue a nursing career. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Originally from Somalia, Amina Wardere, 34, lived in Uganda and Kenya before moving to Lewiston with her husband just over three years ago.

She worked briefly making doughnuts, breads and muffins in 2019 before getting sick and having to quit.

Then the pandemic hit and job prospects got thin.

“A lot of the qualifications that the jobs are looking for: Do you speak English? Do you have high school? Do you have a GED? Do you have a driver’s license? All those were barriers to get a job,” said Abdikhadar Shire, translating for Wardere. “She was not frustrated at all. She believes in, ‘everyone has their time,’ and you only get a job when your time comes.”

It came last September at Abbott Labs, making materials for test swabs.

She saved up over the winter and bought a 2012 Nissan Versa in January. Next up is lots of practice and getting her driver’s license.

“It was exciting — I feel like I complete one great thing in my life,” Wardere said. “Buying a vehicle means a lot to me because now I can go anywhere I want.”

That includes pursing her high school diploma. After that, she hopes, becoming a nurse.

LUIS DIAS: ‘I am aware of the challenges, but I’m willing to do so.’

Luis Dias in his office at the Social Services Department in Lewiston City Hall. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

An accountant with years of experience, Luis Dias arrived in Lewiston directly from Angola three years ago with his wife and three children.

He wanted to be an accountant again and realized quickly, frustratingly, that wasn’t going to happen.

Dias, 33, said he looked for office work. After three months of searching, that wasn’t going to happen either. He took a position as a behavioral health professional, working with children, before getting a job with the city of Lewiston, where he’s now a caseworker in the department of social services.

He’s prepared to rebuild his career and is studying at Central Maine Community College.

“I’m a certified public account in my country; I’m willing to get that certification here in the United States,” Dias said. “I am aware of the challenges, but I’m willing to do so because I have burned all the bridges — there is no way back.”

He sees opportunity in Lewiston, which Dias described as a “good place to start, but also, it’s a good place to live.”

“Many times when people ask me why I still live in Lewiston, I say, ‘OK, thank you for the question but I’m not going anywhere,'” Dias said. “First of all, I believe that my kids are having a good education, and the community is great. There’s a lot of people of my color here. I don’t like to mention that, but this is a fact.”

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