They arrived in Portland on Greyhound buses hungry, exhausted, and disheveled after months fleeing violence from their home countries. As the story unfolded and Mainers read details, a city began to put up cots preparing for the arrival of the asylum seekers. Sign ups for monetary donations and volunteers were posted online. $65,000 was raised in less than a week. If you speak French and Portuguese, all the better. You are needed to help translate. The 150+ people who arrived in Portland are from the African countries of Angola and The Republic of the Congo. Many came up through South and Central America to Texas then onto buses that brought them to Maine, their final destination.
A friend asked, “How is putting them on cots in a large Expo center any different than the detention camps on the southern border?” Mainers watched as cots filled the Expo center and I realized it was a good question and one that was worth a thoughtful answer. It really comes down to one important word that we can use to guide us as we untangle the answer, intent.
Seeking asylum is legal. As a country we need to think about intent as we watch how our country and now our state responds to asylum seekers. Along our southern border, and in states around the country, there are places where asylum seekers are sent and kept. Some are for children who were taken from their families. Many of these places also have only one word we can use to describe them, inhumane. But in Portland we quietly watch and celebrate how the opening of a large arena for our new neighbors is being carried out. Why the contradiction? We denounce the centers in Florida, Texas, and soon to be Oklahoma but cheer this new one in Maine? How can this be? It’s big and cavernous and certainly not a small family home. Remember, it’s all about intent. The intention of Mainers has been clear. On street corners, in cafe shops, on social media we hear, “How can we welcome them? How can we house them and take care of them until they settle into more permanent housing? How can we keep them safe and make them feel welcome?” As we wondered and planned, as buses rolled in, money and donations poured in as well. Neighbors organized with neighbors to collect necessary items for the babies and children. Hundreds of volunteers signed up. The best interests of those arriving always being a top priority. Maybe we got our ideas from the many small organizations along the southern border doing the exact same thing. Watching as volunteers in bus stations in the dead of night share food and clothes as they greet those seeking asylum from Central America.
As we have watched and worked to help those in dire need we also watch as large camps are set up down south, or old military bases are used to house children and families. The children arrive in secret. No one is allowed to see them or go inside these camps. There is no celebration upon their arrival. Even the hundreds of letters made by local school children are not allowed to be delivered to the children inside. These are not in any way similar to what is happening in Portland or the small facilities along the border. These camps, set up by our government, are set up to warehouse people who are looked upon as animals, less than human. They are a pathway to making money, a lot of money. It is clear that the best interests of the people who are housed there are not cared about. There are reports of major over crowding, lack of trained persons to care for them, lack of proper medical care, freezing rooms, exposure to elements, lack of bathrooms, mold, filth, abuse, death. Some are for profit. Some are on military bases meaning they do not need to follow state child care licensing rules. In one notorious camp in Homestead, Florida kids are kept longer than law allows and in prison like conditions. The children tell of the nights they cry, their friends who hurt themselves, the intense loneliness they feel, the missing of their families that they experience. They are in a place that makes a lot of money off of them and the longer they stay, the more money that is made. There are so many details that can be shared here about what is so very, very wrong with this system we have in place. But I’ve cried enough over the past few months already. This is not what is happening in Portland.
Portland, Maine is doing it right. The community leaders of this small city are coming together with the sole intention of helping traumatized people feel at home. It doesn’t matter that they are on cots in the Expo or in a dorm of a local college. They will know that they are wanted and cared about as dozens of volunteers, new to this kind of work, alter their lives to set up cots with blankets and stuffed animals, cook meals for them that they may be familiar with, provide their babies with formula and diapers, walk with them around the city to help them navigate their new home town. This is how it’s done. With love in our hearts and the intention to help ease pain rather than inflict more.
Thank you Portland. You are showing the country that you really are the best little city in the United States.
In peace, love, and solidarity as you work to ease the pain of those arriving on our doorstep,
PS – To donate to Portland – https://www.portlandmaine.gov/1554/Support-Asylum-Seekers