Burundian asylees Edna Thecla Akimana and Claudette Ndayininahaze at Ndayininahaze’s home in Portland. - Photo By Andy O’Brien
Burundian asylees Edna Thecla Akimana and Claudette Ndayininahaze at Ndayininahaze’s home in Portland. - Photo By Andy O’Brien
You can't believe when you are here and you have never been in one of these countries in Africa," said Claudette Ndayininahaze at her home in Portland. "Innocent people have been killed. When you are in your own house, people can just come in and kill your whole family. To survive, people try to leave the country to search for safety and security. We do have good employment back home, but because we are obliged to survive and to save our family, we are obliged to flee the country."

It's been three years since Ndayininahaze fled her homeland in Burundi, a small land-locked African country bordering Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. From 1993 to 2005, the former French colony suffered a brutal civil war which left 300,000 dead. Nevertheless, factional violence has continued and Burundi remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

From War to Maine

While making her new home in Maine, Ndayininahaze has not ignored the suffering in her homeland and has made it her mission to help other Burundian asylum seekers. Sitting across from her is 20-year-old Edna Thecla Akimana, who arrived just four months ago after her parents saved up enough money for the visa and flight to America. Like many young people in Burundi, Akimana says she was constantly under threat of being kidnapped by militants, which is why her parents sent her to the U.S. Her brother and sister were sent to neighboring Rwanda because the family didn't have enough money to send them all to the US.

"The Burundian people who came here to immigrate is because of security," said Akimana in halting English. "There are boys and girls forced into the army. The girls become the wives, and if you don't do that, they kill you."

Three years ago Ndayininahaze had found herself in a similar position as Akimana. She had just arrived in Maine, having left her husband and three children behind, after receiving threats on her life. Prior to her dramatic departure, the family was living a relatively comfortable life. With a background in administration and management, Ndayininahaze had worked 17 years for the largest beverage maker in Burundi and had recently been promoted to national sales manager. Her husband Arthemon Kabwigiri was the principal of a private school. Ndayininahaze also volunteered with the Girl Scouts and from there moved on to work with young women who had been affected by the country's internal strife.

"We have girls who were raped. We had women who were searching for support," said Ndayininahaze. "So we tried to have an association for supporting those people. The woman is the pilot of any family and they need support."

Ndayininahaze then became more political. She joined a human rights group and began speaking out against injustices such as the arrests of political dissidents. That's when the threats began. In January 2011, Ndayininahaze arrived in Portland, where she applied for political asylum. With no money, she stayed at the local women's homeless shelter and applied for emergency general assistance from the city so she could secure an apartment and basic needs.

In July of that year, her children arrived and finally in December Ndayininahaze and her husband were reunited. After waiting several months for her work permit to be approved, she immediately went looking for a job. For anyone looking for work in this economy it's a struggle, but with the language barrier and unfamiliarity with the application process, it was even more challenging.

"Not talking about the education and the degree you have, but just having the basic job for your life is not easy," said Ndayininahaze. "Searching for a job is another job. You need someone to coach you how to do it."

Despite the obstacles, she was able to land a job at Maine Medical Center as a housekeeper and her husband went to work on the supply staff. Ndayininahaze lost her job in a series of layoffs last August, but shortly after she was hired by an agency assisting people with disabilities. As she became established in her new home, Ndayininahaze also began getting engaged in her community. She became vice president of the city's Burundian Community Association, and in September, she received a call. A young Burundian woman had just arrived in Chicago and needed a place to stay until she could have her asylum application processed.

General Assistance: The Bridge for Asylum Seekers

When Edna Thecla Akimana arrived in Chicago, she said she had no money, but a local refugee advocate made a call and gave her money for the bus fare to Portland, where she was welcomed into Ndayininahaze's home. She has since enrolled at Deering High School, where she is a junior. She is currently applying for general assistance (GA) from the City of Portland, so she can get an apartment of her own.

Maine has become known to many central African asylum seekers as a place where they can find community support as well as temporary financial assistance while they have their visas and work permits approved. Often they arrive on tourist or business visas, sometimes with forged documents. While many asylum seekers are well educated and come from financial means, the money doesn't last long and many end up in homeless shelters while their applications are being processed.

Maine happens to be one of a handful of states that does not require proof of citizenship. All asylum seekers must show is that they are applying for asylum. Unlike official refugees, such as many in the Somali and Sudanese populations who are resettled in Maine by the U.S. State Department, asylum seekers do not qualify for any other state or federal benefits while they are applying for asylum. The whole asylum approval process can take from one to two years and it typically takes at least 150 days for asylum seekers to be eligible to legally work once approved for asylum.

However, it's a program that Gov. LePage would like to end and has proposed rules to eliminate GA?reimbursement for those like Akimana and Ndayininahaze who are fleeing violence and persecution. On Friday, January 10, over 200 people - from civil rights and church groups to refugees themselves - showed up at a public hearing to oppose the new rules, which advocates estimate will leave roughly 1,000 new Mainers without access to shelter, food and other basic needs unless cities decide to foot the whole bill.
"We have so many dollars and I'm going to concentrate on Maine people before I start paying people from away," said Gov. LePage at a 2011 forum at Camden Hills Regional High School. "We have billions of people in the world. We can't afford to feed them all out of Maine. We have some of the lowest per-capita income in the nation as we speak."

Since taking office in 2011, Gov. LePage has made it a priority to cut all assistance to legal non-citizens in Maine by eliminating Medicaid coverage, SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits for legal non-citizens who have been in the US less than five years.

But former GA recipients like Ndayininahaze have stressed that asylees typically use the program for a very short time.

"General Assistance is the bridge to life," said Ndayininahaze. "How can he destroy the bridge? When you destroy the bridge, everyone will fall in the water. People will become homeless and human rights are destroyed. I think they can maintain the bridge because the bridge is temporary. It's not forever because providing temporary assistance to new Mainers is to help them get on their feet."

Usually a last resort for low-income Mainers, GA is a state-mandated program that provides emergency assistance to individuals with little or no income to meet basic needs like food and shelter. In the past several decades GA has since been modified by implementing work requirements, time limits, caps on the maximum eligibility amount, and other restrictions. The program has become an emergency safety net for low-income Mainers, especially since state and federal programs have been cut in recent years.

The maximum GA?amount an individual with no income can receive is $812 a month, and Portland recipients reportedly spend 92 percent of that money on food and shelter. GA is funded by a percentage of state revenues and local property taxes, but urban service centers get a higher state reimbursement. In fiscal year 2012, municipalities provided $17.5 million in GA, of which $13.2 million came from the state budget. According to city documents, in FY 13, $2.3 million of Portland's GA program was paid for by city property tax payers and $7.4 million was paid by the state. As the state's largest city, Portland receives 40 percent of state funding for GA. In 2013, the City of Portland provided general assistance to 4,376, about 30 percent of whom identified as refugees, asylees, or visa holders.

The Benefits of Immigration for Maine

Immigrant advocacy groups say the decision to cut GA for asylum seekers is not only inhumane, but could also have a negative impact on Maine's future economy, particularly considering the state's rapidly aging demographics. A recent report released by the Maine Development Foundation and promoted by the state Chamber of Commerce touted the benefits of welcoming new immigrants and called for programs that support foreign professionals, many of whom are refugees.

"I think we need to look at the bigger picture of what this group of individuals has to offer the state with an aging population and decreasing pool of working-age residents," said Sue Roche of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which assists asylum seekers in navigating complicated immigration laws. "Immigrants are really the future of Maine, particularly the asylum seekers who have professions back home. They're doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers. They have a lot of skills and they want to make their lives here."

Alain Nahimana, the coordinator for the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, was a successful son of a former ambassador and a leader in Burundi's ruling political party. However, after he became critical of the direction of his party, he was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. After his release, he went into hiding and fled to Maine in February 2010 because he had a classmate who lived here. He relied on GA until he could legally work, but quickly found a job once he received his work permit in September 2011. Nahimana says refugees are a diverse group, with many different skills, levels of education and cultural backgrounds. In addition to those persecuted based on their ethnicity or for political and religious beliefs, he says there's also an LGBT community of Burundian asylum seekers in Maine because homosexuality is illegal in their native country.

However, Nahimana says it's the sense of community - both from fellow African natives as well as the generosity of Mainers - that has allowed refugees to heal and become productive in their new home. Rwandans, Angolans, Congolese, Djiboutians and Burundians each have their own community associations in Maine to help other asylum seekers and support each other.

"Helping each other is a cultural thing and that's how we do things," said Nahimana. "For us, a community member's problem is the community's problem. So we support each other as much as we can in terms of counseling and even financial help when we can."

But although the refugee community and local church groups have helped, it's the GA that is the lifeline for asylum seekers like Nahimana, Ndayininahaze, and Akimana. And since the governor's rule change doesn't need the support of the Legislature for approval, advocates worry the result may be a foregone conclusion. And despite the political rhetoric pitting native Mainers against newly arrived Mainers, many members of the local refugee community say they are here to stay. For Ndayininahaze, who has remained idealistic and civically engaged despite her hardships, it's a place she hopes to help make a better place to live for everyone.

"Maine is my home now and will be my home because it's my new community," she said. "I need to work, but I need to be together with American people, so we can be the country and the state together. Of course, I don't forget my country. I think in the long term, our community here will find a way to contribute for the safety back home with the support of the American people."

Written comments on the proposed rule change must be submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services by January 24.