Sandy Butler, University of Maine, and Luisa Deprez, University of Southern Maine
Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on September 26, 2014.
Editor’s note: In this monthly series, the authors introduce you to people who are apt to be your neighbors, are struggling to make ends meet and have been affected by specific state policies. To share your story, write to Sandy.Butler@umit.maine.edu or call 581-2382.
Robert and Elena (not their real names) live in Lewiston with four of their five children. They escaped from their homeland of Angola having lost their livelihood, enduring torture and fearing for their lives. Elena came first, one year ago, with their three daughters, ages 7 through 11, having experienced physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the government after being falsely accused of connections to an anti-government separatist group. Robert followed eight months later, when the government started pursuing him. He brought their five-year-old son, but could not afford to bring along his elder, eight-year old son, who remains with family in Angola. They hope to bring him to Maine as soon as possible.
General Assistance provided Robert and his family needed emergency assistance when they arrived.
Robert and Elena had a successful business selling imported spices in Angola’s capital city of Luanda. In 2007, they opened a second shop in the city of Cabinda and Elena moved there to manage it. Since Angola’s 1975 independence from the Portugal, the separatist movement Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) has fought for the independence of the Cabinda province.
According to Robert, the Angolan government accused the business community in Cabinda of supporting FLEC. “They went after all the businesses, and that is why my wife was arrested. She had never been with FLEC.” Elena and others were arrested in 2010 after an attack attributed to FLEC and were tortured, raped and prevented from leaving.
After the arrest, Robert went to Cabinda to look for Elena, and when his efforts were fruitless he bribed a policeman for information. The policeman told Robert to return to Luanda and that he would arrange to have Elena sent there. Elena arrived two days later. “She was destroyed, completely destroyed,” Robert recalled. The people who brought her to Luanda warned Robert that she should leave the country quickly for her safety.
Robert took Elena to the hospital, worked to help her heal from her trauma, and tried to continue with his life and business. For three years they were left alone, but in 2013 they learned the government was looking for Elena. She left Angola in the summer of 2013 with their three daughters. Robert stayed behind with their two sons to run the business, but in November 2013 he was arrested and tortured by government officials seeking information about his wife’s whereabouts. He bribed his way out and, using all his savings, left Angola quickly with their youngest son. The government destroyed his house and business after he left.
“It is a sad story because everything was so good,” Robert laments. “We were doing so good. No one could even imagine why we would leave our country. But because of what was happening, we had to come.”
Robert lost contact with his wife, but ultimately found her after she arrived in Maine, a place she had heard was peaceful and safe. No group helped to relocate Elena and her children; when she arrived by bus in central Maine, she met some friendly people who spoke French — which she could speak better than English — who directed her to an Angolan family in Lewiston. They stayed with this family until they could rent an apartment with the help of General Assistance. Elena and her family also received considerable support from the Church of All Nations and its pastor.
Elena filed her immigration papers requesting asylum and waited the required 150 days before applying for a work permit. During that time she volunteered at Lewiston’s Trinity Jubilee Center — providing day shelter and food to the homeless — and studied English through adult education. She and her children were receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families by the time Robert and their son joined them in March 2014.
Robert also filed his immigration papers and has waited the required 150 days before applying for a work permit. During that time he studied and quickly obtained his GED. He completed a college transition program and has been accepted into Central Maine Community College’s two-year nursing program starting in January 2015. In the meantime, he plans to complete the training to be a certified nursing assistant.
Robert is skilled and eager to contribute to his new community. He is fluent in English, Portuguese, and his native tongue, Kicongo. He speaks six other languages, including Swahili, Lingala, French and Zulu. And while he has diplomas from Angola in the fields of business and retail management, human resources and computer programming, he is looking forward to his new career in nursing. He said, “It is something that I always had in mind but never had the chance to do.”
At the time of our interview, Elena was waiting to hear about a job she had applied for in Auburn. She and Robert are anxious to be self-supporting but are grateful for the assistance they have received that has allowed them to get on their feet in this new country.
Robert is aware of the directive passed down from the LePage administration that would bar asylum applicants from receiving assistance. Lewiston, like many towns and cities in the state, has continued to provide emergency funds to asylum seekers in need, as the directive is being challenged in court. “If my wife had not gotten GA before she got TANF and the work permit, it would have been a big problem,” Robert said. “You can imagine, a woman with children, not having a place to stay, not having food.”
“Back home we had things to do, we had jobs. It is only circumstances that brought us here,” Robert says of his family and other immigrants in Lewiston. “And definitely, I know the people from my community don’t want to just sit around and receive assistance. You will find most of them, if not all of them, are busy doing volunteer work. If the GA program gives us a chance, people will be working and paying taxes.”
When thinking about the future, Robert does not dwell on the horrors of his and his wife’s past trauma nor on all they have lost, but rather on the life they are creating for themselves and their children. “We want to make the best of our chance here, so that we can make a contribution,” he says. “We want to help Lewiston grow again. We know we can make it if we are given a chance.”
Sandy Butler is professor of social work and graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. Luisa S. Deprez is professor and department chair of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. They are members of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.
Maine’s General Assistance program is older than the state: Its foundation is the English Poor Law of 1601. Municipalities were then charged with the responsibility of assisting indigent people who had no means of support or family to help them. That primary responsibility continued until the federal government stepped in with the “New Deal” programs in the 1930s and the “Great Society” programs in the 1960s.
Today, GA is the safety net of last resort for those who are very poor and do not qualify for other public assistance.
— The majority of states have a GA program that provides these essential functions or other such programs for those who cannot meet their most basic needs.
— Benefit levels are low, and maximum benefits are most often well below the poverty line for individuals and families.
— GA law also includes work requirements as a condition of receiving financial assistance, the goal being to encourage employment and self-sufficiency.
— For eligible recipients, assistance is provided by the town of residence, in voucher form, for basic needs such as rent, food, medication, fuel, utilities and other essential services.
— Eighty-five percent of assistance goes to housing or housing-related costs.
In 2014, Gov. Paul LePage issued a proclamation barring many immigrant populations in Maine from GA. He claimed that this would impact people who are “undocumented” and here “illegally” when, in fact, the vast majority of those impacted by this directive are applicants lawfully seeking refuge here in Maine.
GA continues to serve as the source of assistance of last resort for those who cannot meet their most basic needs.