We should work to meet the needs of all Mainers

A man sits on the edge of a cot at the emergency shelter setup inside the Portland Expo building, June 19, 2019. Hundreds of new asylum seekers, mainly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have started arriving in Portland. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

“‘It was completely unexpected!’: 96 asylum seekers arrive in 3 days,” a recent headline blared, and Portland City Manager Jon Jennings says more than 150 are slated to arrive from Texas, with even more expected.

In the last few weeks, similar headlines and news stories have chronicled the dangerous and long trek asylum seekers have endured from the Democratic Republic of the Congo through Central America and Mexico to the United States. Many are making a beeline north to one of the whitest, oldest and most rural states in the country — Maine.

Most of these asylum seekers are fleeing conflict in the Congo, one of the deadliest wars since World War II. Yet it has also been one of the most anonymous, and it is far from over.

Maine has openly welcomed the refugees while also being cognizant of limited resources to meet the needs of these individuals and families. Nevertheless, not everyone is on board with this outpouring of support. I get it: Maine has many unmet needs and living the “way life should be” can be challenging for many. However, before rolling up the welcome mat, it is important to review the history behind, and contemporary reality of, those who have fled and are now seeking to make Maine their home.

A few key factors can help us understand what has led to the displacement of 4.5 million people from the DRC. With an abundance of natural resources, unstable government and history of colonial induced ethnic tension, the DRC was rife for conflict.

The Belgians enacted a particularly brutal form of colonialism to secure the country’s natural resources, particularly copper and diamonds, and fostered conflict between the DRC’s more than 200 ethnic groups. Mired in political corruption with an ineffective government, warlords and thieves soon dominated the mining sector and the national currency effectively lost all value. Along with nine other African countries and 25 armed groups, the DRC imploded into war. Since 1996, 3.5 million to 5.4 million people have perished.

A peace agreement was signed in 2003, but many of the warring parties refused to give up power to the transitional government and the conflict continued. In 2016, violence erupted once again in the Kasai region, leading to the displacement of another 2.1 million people between 2017 and 2018.

Just last week, Bosco Ntaganda, otherwise known as “the terminator” was convicted by the International Criminal Court of mass murder, rape and abduction while serving as a key militia leader in 2002 and 2003. His atrocities were grave, including the mass killing at a village where people — including children and babies — were “disemboweled or had their heads smashed in,” rape, sexual slavery of underage girls, the recruitment of children soldiers and personally killing a Roman Catholic priest, the court said.

The violence continues in the mining industry as the global demand for minerals such as gold, uranium, oil, colton (used in cell phones), cobalt (used in solar energy) and natural gas grows with ever expanding global technology and defense industries.

The DRC is the poorest country in the world, with 64 percent of people living in extreme poverty. More than 2 million children suffer from acute malnutrition. In 2016 alone, one in 10 women were raped and men feared being killed or even worse forced to join the more than 100 armed groups.

We in Maine are not separate from this conflict. We consume the natural resources that continue to foster violence in the Congo. When we see the faces of asylum seekers in news reports or in person, we must recognize that they represent a complex history in which we are all entangled, an often ignored history, and a continuing brutality and suffering. Even more so, the DRC is only one of many global regions plagued with violence from which survivors seek refuge.

I am proud that Maine represents a place to resettle for asylum seekers fleeing violence and can provide leadership in recognizing the interconnections between our lives and those pursuing safety. Let us continue to extend compassion toward those rightly seeking asylum as we strive to meet the needs of all Mainers.

Nicole Coffey Kellett is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Maine at Farmington. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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