Hope in a Quarter Acre: A Congolese Immigrant Finds New Home in Maine

Omasombo Katuka stands in a field filled with uprooted carrots, discarded eggplant bushes and wilting corn stalks. It’s noon in early October, but the sun already seems to have lost its strength. He frowns at a cluster of kale growing crookedly along a row, bends to pick off the fresh leaves.

Farm standThe rows of kale have grown in green, crammed between drier and more decaying crops like patchwork. The corn has passed; the green pepper, too. Omasombo’s plot – a narrow, thing quarter acre slice of land – lies just 100 yards past the pebbled driveway and next to the four greenhouses where the crops are sorted and stored before sale. A little over a mile from the town line of Lewiston, the farm takes up two sides of Littlefield Road in Lisbon, Maine. The farm buildings are unassuming: a one-room farm stand, painted a rusty red; an open-air wash station, punctuated down the middle and both sides by a long, thin tables littered with wash basins; and three smaller greenhouses for harvested crops.

The farm is run by the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project, a farming education program exclusively for immigrants and refugees in the Lewiston and Portland area. The year-round program couples classroom learning with practical farming to teach new Americans the physical, economic, agricultural, and financial skills they would need to grow food for income. Many of the 11-year-old project’s past participants have gone on to manage farms independently, as supplemental or the main source of income for their families.

The 30-acre farm is less than a mile from the town line of Lewiston, where Omasombo lives with his wife and eight children. It is through this farm project that Omasombo may finally have found a toe-hold, a way in to understanding his adopted country, one that had beguiled him since arriving in 2010 from a refugee camp in Tanzania.

Omasombo, a teacher in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, escaped to neighboring Tanzania after rebel soldiers threatened to attack his family. After seven years in four separate camps, the Omasombo family – Omasombo, his wife Poya, and their eight children – was resettled in the United States, in a pocket of Nashville, Tennessee, infamously dubbed “Dodge City.”

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Life in North Nashville was a shock. Tee Hassold, who taught Omasombo’s son David in the North Nashville school system, describes the family’s home. “It was a building with six duplexes lined up next to each other. Brick, cinderblock, hard floors, sparse furniture,” he told me over the phone. The ten Omasombos shared three beds.

The family received $800 in government benefits each month, supported only by a part time job Omasombo secured washing sheets at the local hospital from four to eight a.m. each morning. His wife Poya, with her limited English, could not secure a job.

Hassold came to Nashville for two years with Teach For America. His second grade classroom was half immigrants from Africa and half African Americans, a dynamic that he describes as difficult. All of Hassold’s students were from the same projects, a “bubble” of five blocks just north of downtown Main Street.

The school, among the lowest performing in the entire state of Tennessee, was comprised almost exclusively of African American students and immigrants that lived in the government projects. The school pitted the African American students against the African students. Blatant discrimination and name-calling was a daily occurrence for the kids in Hassold’s classroom, which were all immigrants. Hassold didn’t tolerate bullying in the classroom, but there wasn’t much he could do in the school’s cafeteria or the bus. “It got worse as they got older,” Hassold admits.

Once, the Omasombos had a bullet go through their window. Hassold doesn’t think it was a targeted thing, but a stray bullet. The eggs that were thrown at the house, however, were unmistakably aimed at the family. “It was someone else in David’s class who threw them,” Hassold says.

Hassold took an immediate liking to David, taking him out of Dodge City on the weekends to see the rest of Nashville. He got to know Omasombo’s family well, and began inviting the family to his place for dinner. Despite the discrimination that David and the other children faced at school, Hassold knows that it gave the children an opportunity to understand how life worked in their new home. The parents of immigrant children in Dodge City, Hassold explains, didn’t have that opportunity. Because of language barriers, discomfort, or fear, parents didn’t acknowledge each other, and insulated themselves from life outside their apartment.

Life in Dodge City was nothing close to Omasombo’s previous life. There was nothing familiar, nothing even recognizable. So when a friend from the refugee camp in Tanzania told them about his new life in a town called Lewiston, Maine, Omasombo was anxious to move his family north.

In the summer of 2012, Tee Hassold started a blog, “From Congo to Maine: Help the Omasombos Complete Their Journey.” With a heartfelt written plea and a three-minute video, Hassold raised $8,000 to fund the family’s trip to Maine. In a rented 15-seat passenger van, Hassold drove himself. The Omasombos, Hassold, and two friends left on July 18 for a three-day journey from Nashville to DC to Boston to Maine.

When the Omasombo family arrived in Lewiston, there were only three Congolese families in the city. That number is quickly changing – as word spreads of the low costs of living and opportunities for education, more immigrants and refugees are sure to come to the Pine Tree State.

The foreign-born population in Maine, while low compared to the national, has grown exponentially in recent years. Between the years 2000 and 2011, according to the Immigration Policy Center, the foreign-born population grew 16.5 percent, from 36,691 to 42,747. Of this foreign-born population, 11.5 percent of are from Africa. This percentage is much higher than the national average, in which only 4.1 percent of the total immigrant population in the United States is Africa.

After many hugs and a few tears, Hassold disappeared with the empty van headed back to Nashville, and Omasombo began looking for a place to live. For two weeks, Omasombo, Poya, and their eight children slept together in a spare bedroom at their friend’s house in Lewiston, but soon found a house with rent much cheaper than their government housing in Nashville. He enrolled his kids in the Lewiston public schools. It was then that his friend told him about an agriculture program for immigrants that was run out of Portland, a 40-minute drive to the south. Omasombo had experience farming at the refugee camp, and needed the income a season’s worth of crops might bring in. He signed up right away.

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IMG_2766The immigrant population in Lewiston is well represented on the small farm off Route 196. Daniel Ungier, the program’s training coordinator, estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the participants are refugees, and two-thirds are Somali Bantu. The program began in 2002 in response to a large influx of Somali refugees in Lewiston, Maine’s second largest-city. The refugees overwhelmingly lived as subsistence farmers in Somalia, and the New American project helped them start small vegetable farms for the Lewiston community and direct markets. Since its founding, the program has grown to reflect the increasing diversity in Lewiston and the greater Portland area’s immigrant population. In 2009, the project teamed up with Cultivating Community, an organization that used sustainable agriculture as a tool for community development, and expanded to include training, marketing, and sales assistances for the immigrant participants.

Even before the days got longer, back in the late winter months when the sun shone blindingly on the thick layers of ice that blanketed Lewiston, Omasombo began to attend classes provided by the New American project to learn the nuances of agriculture and farming in New England. Omasombo drove to Portland every Monday to attend classes in production and marketing, financial literacy, and farm- and market-based ESL classes. On the third weekend of April, Omasombo drove to the farm in Lisbon for the first time, and Ungier pointed to the quarter acre of land that was now his for the next six months. As a first year participant, Omasombo was provided a quarter-acre plot, seedlings, and on-site support. Other immigrants, toiling on plots around him, had graduated to the second- and third-level of the program, which incrementally give the farmer more autonomy and responsibility for handling the growing, harvesting, and selling the crops on their own.

Apart from hands-on assistance and classroom work, the project doesn’t provide much financial hand-holding. Everything that goes into the field is the participant’s own expense, says Ungier. The first year of an immigrant’s participation, they provide the seedlings, but after that farmers much manage their crops finances independently. Omasombo, despite being in his first season, has quickly become self-sufficient. “His level of independence with marketing resembles people who have been with the program much longer… but he’s still learning how the seasons work,” says Ungier.

Farming in central Africa, it turns out, is not identical to farming in New England. In the Congo, you can plant your crops twice during the eight-month season, and sell until December. In Maine, farmers must capitalize on a short, four-month season, from June to October. The hardest thing for Omasombo was learning all the new types of food, and the dates for when the food grows best. Ungier and his team, a staff of two full time farm managers and three part time assistants, teach the immigrants how to use different machines to assist in their work. They show them, crop by crop, the quality standards to watch out for. (“People don’t accept bruises,” says Ungier.) They go to the farmers markets with them, and watch the farmers interact with the customers.

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With winter beckoning, Omasombo doesn’t come to the farm as much. Now that he has a part-time job to help support his family of ten, he can wait until the farm’s manager calls him with a request to drive out to Lisbon. Hassold, who flew out to visit with the family last fall, says that the family is much happier in Maine. “In Nashville, there was no structure for integrating them,” Hassold says. “In Maine, they have all these opportunities for integrating, but [in Nashville] there wasn’t anything like that to help them get adjusted.”

Omasombo’s children, David included, love their new schools in Lewiston. David’s third grade teacher, after reading Hassold’s blog, took an interest and visited the family often. David can relate more with his classmates – everyone plays soccer here, and they didn’t in Nashville. Omasombo likes that there is more respect shown within families and between neighbors in Maine.

OmasomboBack at the farm, Omasombo leads me through his plot. Pepper, swiss chard, beans, peas, green onion, kale and row after row of the small white eggplant. Last winter, the project organized an outreach event that attracted more than a half dozen inquiries from Congolese immigrants. Although Omasombo was the only Congolese immigrant to participate this year, Ungier thinks that many more will follow his lead for the 2014 season. “Once we have someone like Omasombo, its easier for them to explain it in their own language and on their own terms – than ours,” says Ungier.

Ungier sees potential in Omasombo – not only in his farming skills, but in his business sense. “He’s done a really phenomenal job for his first year,” says Ungier. “What’s really unique is, he’s really had his own marketing plan from the beginning.” Omasombo’s strategy has been to sell directly to the Congolese community, driving down to Portland, with its larger Congolese population, and sending his crops across the country to friends back in Nashville and even in Iowa.

Participants usually make between $1,000 and 2,000 their first year, says Ungier, although he estimates that Omasombo has made much more than this. Omasombo is especially proud of his eggplant crop, a small white eggplant that he tells me is grown in Africa. He snaps a fist-sized eggplant off the vine and holds it up for me to see. 

Next month, Omasombo will start tallying up his sales. Ungier and his staff will help the immigrants keep accurate records of their income and their expenses. And in December and January, they will once again begin their production and marketing classes, preparing for another year.

Omasombo’s first priority is to learn. The more he gleans from the process, the more farming will help earn him an income in the future. “When you are in Nashville you cannot have an opportunity to learn something like that,” he says to me. The economic and financial lessons that Omasombo is getting from the program, however, extend far beyond the farm. “They can teach me how to work in America: tomorrow I can open my own business.”

Infographic: New Americans in Maine

Check out this fact-packed infographic produced by the Immigration Policy Center about the foreign-born population in Maine. My favorite stats:

  • 3.4% of Mainers are foreign born
  • 56.6% of immigrants in the state are eligible to vote
  • Immigrants are 2.8% of the state’s workforce
  • 83.1% of children with immigrant parents are proficient in English

Immigration Policy Center Infographic

Source: “The Political and Economic Power of Immigrants, Latinos, and Asians in the Pine Tree State.” Immigration Policy Center

BBC News Magazine: African migrants who call America’s whitest state home

This video focuses on the influx of Somali immigrants and refugees into the town of Lewiston, Maine, where over 6,000 Somali and Somali Bantus that have settled since 2001.

With a state population of just over 1.2 million, these numbers have wide-reaching consequences. Although this video focuses on the town of Lewiston, the state’s largest city, Portland, has been experiencing an increase in its immigrant population as well. Today, over 1,000 immigrants from central Africa live Portland.

Click through to watch the BBC produced video.

Click through to watch the BBC produced video.

This BBC video demonstrates the challenges that both African immigrants and residents themselves face in the country’s “whitest state.”

English Language Learners in Portland Suburbs

The Portland Press Herald yesterday published an article about the influx of immigrants to Portland’s suburbs.

Photo Credit: Portland Press Herald

Photo Credit: Portland Press Herald

The suburb of Westbrook, in particular, has been changing due to the growing population of immigrants. Among the changes to the town of 18,000 are a new ethnic market, new ESL classes, and school menu items designed to accomodate Muslim students. In 2005, Westbrook’s English-language-learners program had 27 students; this year there are 265.

“Portland has long been a place where immigrants have resettled, but in recent years a rising numbers of new Americans have made their homes in its suburbs.” -Leslie Bridgers, Portland Press

ELL enrollment in Portland's suburbs. Courtesy of the Portland Press Herald

ELL enrollment in Portland’s suburbs. Courtesy of the Portland Press Herald

The trend of immigrants moving to Maine’s suburbs manifests itself in the increase in English language learning students in these areas. The majority of immigrants learning English have the goal of landing a job. Much like the New American Center I’ve been reporting from in Lynn, Mass., students disappear once they’ve landed a job.

Read Bridger’s article in the Portland Press Herald here, or follow her on Twitter at @lesliebridgers.

Portland, Maine: Impact of the 13 Percent

My last blog post pointed out the huge difference between the foreign-born population in Portland, Maine and the rest of the state. This 2010 story from WLBZ News drives this point home. According to this report, Portland “has become so diverse that 23 percent of its overall school population is now learning English as a second or even third language.”

“When Principal Mike McCarthy got to King Middle School 23 years ago, just 3 percent of the population was foreign born,” the article reads. “Now it’s climbed to 30 percent and growing all the time.”

Read the article in its entirety and click on the image below to watch a short video produced on the school.

Increasing immigrant population in Portland putting pressure on school resources - WLBZ News

Increasing immigrant population in Portland putting pressure on school resources – WLBZ News

Asylum Applicants in Portland, Maine: An Update

In the process of the research for my last article on the Congolese diaspora in Maine, I came across an October 2011 Portland Press Herald article about the overwhelming demand for asylum assistance.

The article described the incredible spike in demand for assistance for asylum applicants in Maine: in one year from 2009 to 2010, applications for asylum assistance increased from 100 cases to approximately 400. The majority of these cases, the piece read, were from Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The paper did not give a conclusive reason for the rise in asylum seekers in Maine, but did contrast this upward trend to the national average, where asylum applications fell a staggering 16 percent from 2006 to 2011. Another differing factor was the success of asylum assistance seekers being helped by the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, Maine’s sole provider of immigration legal aid to low-income residents. According to a study from Syracuse University, the success rate of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project was 97 percent, compared with the 54 percent national average of asylum seekers with lawyers.

The article mentioned that the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland was forced to stop accepting new cases in March of 2010 because of this overwhelming demand, but didn’t provide any hints towards the situation at the time of the Press Herald’s publication. I wrote to Noël Young, an asylum coordinator attorney for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project to ask for an update.

The article says that the demand for asylum assistance increased from 100 cases to about 400 between 2009 and 2010. What is the demand like today?
Young: Same. I don’t have hard numbers for you but the demand has no subsided – but I don’t think it’s increased either. We are slightly better able to deal with it, due to the creation of my position (see below), but we still have to turn people away.

The article also says that you had to stop accepting cases in March 2010 – have you begun again accepting new cases? If so, how many new cases do you take?
Yes – we began again in December 2011, although we certainly cannot take all / meet demand. My position was created and I was hired in June 2011 to deal with the increased demand and by December 2011 we had ‘reopened.’

The article stated that the majority of asylum seekers in Portland were from Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, DRC, and Somalia. Is this still the case, or are you seeing any new trends?
All is still the same, with the only addition being Angola.

Young also clarified about the migration patterns for Congolese to Maine; the first wave of Congolese that came to Portland were resettled refugees, whereas the current “explosion” in population are from asylum-seekers.

The Congolese Diaspora in Maine

From the stories pouring out of Maine, from the influx of Somalis in Lewiston to the high demand for asylum assistance in Portland, I was under the impression that Maine’s cheap housing and low crime rates were attracting a large percentage of immigrants.

Over 4,000 new immigrants have moved to Lewiston since 2001, read a Newsweek article from January 2009. At the time the article was posted in 2009, almost 1,000 students were enrolled in ESL classes at Lewiston’s adult education center. An April 2012 article from the Portland Press Herald stated that in 2010, fully 13 percent of Portland’s population was foreign born.

But upon closer investigation, I realized that Maine was trailing – big time – with their immigration numbers. What many have referred to as “America’s whitest state” isn’t technically true, but it’s close.

The state capitol building in Augusta, Maine

The state capitol building in Augusta, Maine

According to the Immigration Policy Center, 3.4 percent of Maine’s 1.27 million residents are foreign born. This population, estimated at 42,747 in 2011 by the Migration Policy Institute, ranks Maine 45th out of the total 51 in the country (MPI counts the 50 states plus the District of Columbia).

Despite the news headlines generated by the massive influx of Somalis in Lewiston and the growing diversity of Portland, the increase in the foreign-born population between the years 2000 and 2011 was one of the lowest in the country as well, ranking 47th out of 51.

As a percentage, the foreign-born population in Maine has changed 16.5 percent between 2000 and 2011, from 36,691 to 42,747. While this is a big jump from the previous decade in Maine (from 1990 to 2000, the foreign-born population changed only 1.1 percent), it is still much lower than the national percentage, which from 2000 to 2011 changed 29.8 percent (from 31.1 million to 40.3 million).

The jump from 1.1 percent to 16.5 percent, however, is the largest jump in the country. Between 2000 and 2010, only five states (Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Maine) experienced an increase in immigrant population growth from the decade earlier, and Maine’s increase was by far the largest.

Another interesting discrepancy was the immigrant populations of Portland and Lewiston compared to the rest of the state. With a total foreign-born state population of 42,747, and the 13 percent foreign-born in Portland (a total of 8,633), approximately 34,000 immigrants are left for the remainder of the state. Furthermore, if you take out the estimated 5,000 Somali and Bantu population of Lewiston, only 29,000 remain over the remainder of the state. With a population of 1.2 million (the total state population minus the populations of Portland and Lewiston), you’re looking at an immigrant population that comprises roughly 2.4 percent of the total population. The drastic difference between Portland’s immigrant population (at 13 percent) and the immigrant population of the rest of the state (2.4 percent), you can see how different the immigrant experience could be depending on the person’s geographic location.

The population of illegal immigrants is small in Maine. According to an estimate in 2007 by The Federation for American Immigration Reform, only about 0.3 percent of Maine’s overall population were in the U.S. illegally.

Maine is known as "The Vacation State."

Maine is known as “The Vacation State.”

The majority of immigrants in Maine are either Asian or Latino. The Immigration Policy Center’s website states that the Latino share of Maine’s population grew from 0.7 percent of the total state population in 2000 to 1.3 percent in 2010; the Asian share of the population grew from 0.7 percent to 1.0 percent over the same time period.

Despite the large share of Asian and Latino immigrants, 11.5 percent of the foreign born population in Maine are from Africa. This percentage is much higher than the national percentage, in which only 4.1 percent of the total immigrant population in the U.S. is African.

Although it is hard to pin down the specific number of Congolese immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there are a number of statistics that hint toward an estimate.

According to the 2000 census, there were 3,885 Congolese Americans who were born in the DRC. Although the 2010 census has not come up with a specific number for foreign born from the DRC, the American Community Survey estimated that in 2010 a total of 11,000 Congolese Americans resided in the country. Fronteras reporting adds to this number, stating that an additional 3,000 immigrants came to the U.S. from the DRC in the year 2010.

Between the years of 2000 and 2004, according to Statemaster.com, there were only 64 refugees to settle in New England from the DRC, and of those 64, 11 settled in Maine.

Although I couldn’t find any other statistics about the Congolese Diaspora in the state of Maine, there are anecdotes I’ve come across that paint a rough picture of the population. In a 2012 article from the Portland Press Herald, Congolese immigrant E’nkul Kanakan is quoted as saying there were only five other families from the DRC when he arrived in Portland in 1996, and today there are between 150 and 200 families of Congolese origin in the city.

In the coming weeks I hope to travel to Maine to report on more stories about the Congolese immigrant and refugee experience in the state. I would love to tell stories about life as a Congolese American in Portland as well as life as a Congolese American in other towns and cities throughout the state. If you live in Maine and want to contact me please send me an email or Tweet.

The Daily Beast: How Refugees “Saved” Lewiston, Maine

Screen Shot from The Daily Beast
Check out this 2009 article by The Daily Beast about how the influx of refugees – mostly Somali, but lately populations from Sudan and the DRC – have “saved” the town of Lewiston, Maine. The article details how the post-2001 immigrant population in Lewiston has raised the income level, lowered crime rates, and infused the community with both youth and diversity.