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Sudanese Refugees Find New Home in Maine


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.


SIMON: Portland, Maine has a postcard New England waterfront; seagulls, squalls, buoy bells ring, small boats putter by. The high temperature this weekend is expected to be 56 degrees. But Portland has become home to a growing population of refugees, who have come from a place where the temperature is 110 today and climbing. Sudanese, many from Darfur, who have survived a kind of hell on earth and come to this place where their children can play freely, if still buttoned up in heavy coats.


SIMON: Kennedy Park is public housing, simple blockhouses with angled roofs, run by the Portland Housing Authority. Most the arrivals find their first housing here next to Interstate 295.


MARY OTTO: Hi, come in. Hi.

SIMON: This is where Mary Otto first arrived in Portland 12 years ago, fleeing Sudan's civil war. Her husband, son and mother were presumed dead. She trekked through rough bush country for several months, carrying her three daughters on her back and in her arms, and what was left of their possessions in a bundle on her head. She began to make her way to the United States. She had heard about Portland. There were three other Sudanese in the area.

OTTO: When I came, I thought it was a good place, a small town. And that was what really I wanted. I wanted a small town because in a small town there are less crime and people know each other.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

OTTO: And thought it was a good place to raise my kids.

SIMON: What month of the year did you come here?

OTTO: I came in September.

SIMON: What did you think in December?

OTTO: Oh, it was awful.


OTTO: It was awful. I didn't like the snow at all because it was my first time to see snow.

SIMON: What do you think now of snow?

OTTO: It's hard for me to get use to because it's still cold and...

SIMON: Yeah?

OTTO: ... I like the color. But the coldness, I really don't like it.

SIMON: But you like Maine.

OTTO: I like Maine. I do.

SIMON: Yeah.

OTTO: It seems like it's my home.

SIMON: Maine has the highest percentage of white residents in the country, 96.5 percent. But the Sudanese, who form much of that 3.5 percent, have been able to begin to build a community in the foreign place that now feels, that now is, their home.

OTTO: The people in Maine are nice. Since we came here, they have been very nice to us. They have been very supportive to us. Yeah. And that make it a bit, you know, easier for us to live.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. You work as a teacher's aide in a school.

OTTO: Yes, I work at Reiche School.

SIMON: Are there children from Sudanese families in the school?

OTTO: So many children from Sudan, from other war countries who came to Maine. They're all there. We have — the school is — most of the students are from, you know, immigrants from other countries.

SIMON: So, what countries?

OTTO: We have a Zaire, which is Congo. We have Rwanda. We have people from Ethiopia. We have people from Sudan. We have people from Serbo-Croatia.

SIMON: Serbo-Croatia, yeah.

OTTO: We have people. We have people from all over, about 20-something countries in that school.


OTTO: Ninety-nine percent of that — of Reiche School are immigrants.

SIMON: Portland's small town pace and security and its healthy employment base has made the town a portal for refugees. Their arrival here has sharpened the attachment the community feels to the world. There was a press conference at Portland's City Hall last week, calling on Maine's legislature to divest the state's retirement investments from companies that do business with or in Sudan.

Mayor Jim Cohen said...

JIM COHEN: This directly affects families here in Portland. And personally, it affects me as a member of an ethnicity, the Jewish people who have endured centuries and millennia of persecution, of Holocaust and genocide. We cannot forget. And we need to stand by, shoulder to shoulder, to address our brethren around the world who are facing these types of atrocities. We are here to try to take a stand against genocide, against Holocausts happening in other places of the world.

SIMON: A lot of Sudanese Mainers were in the audience, their children wearing bright suits, smiling and playing tag, while the politicians, in more drab suits, and community leaders, spoke. Governor John Baldacci, the son of Lebanese immigrants, said...

JOHN BALDACCI: The genocide occurring in Sudan is one of the great human rights tragedy in history. And we should be acting now, and be part of efforts to end the atrocities taking place in the Darfur region.

SIMON: And then the governor signed the bill.

BALDACCI: It's a law.

SIMON: Monsur Ahmed(ph) was there with his wife and two children. They'd been in Portland for a couple of years and we joined them in their ground-floor apartment in the working-class neighborhood of Munjoy Hill.

MONSUR AHMED: This was my first trip from Africa (unintelligible) to Portland, Maine here, and it's a very safe place for me and very lovely place for me. It has very great people here and people love each other. So I like it too much.

SIMON: What was your, what was Darfur like when you left?

AHMED: It can very worsen in 2003 when the indigenous people of Darfur took arm against the government to protect themselves, not to confirm the government, to protect themselves after they had lost everything. Then the government destroyed Darfur as a whole. So Darfur now is, no people live in villages, no villages. Before we leave, even me I was born in a little village and I grow up, so no village now.

SIMON: Monsur's cousin, Ali Adam(ph), was also in the living room with other family members, eating lunch of chicken, rice and vegetables. Their family is from the Fur Tribe in Darfur. Darfur translates into Home of the Fur. There are about 120 Furs living in Portland among 2,000 Sudanese. Ali Adam arrived just a few weeks ago after years of languishing in Egypt on a waiting list of refugees. A friend was his interpreter.

ALI ADAM: (Foreign Language Spoken)

TRANSLATOR: He says that his father was being killed in Darfur and his two sisters and some of his family by a (unintelligible).

SIMON: How did you get out?

ADAM: (Foreign Language Spoken)

TRANSLATOR: While the (unintelligible) attacked the village, he escaped and separate from the family. He find some transport to Egypt. So he escaped to Egypt.

SIMON: How do you like Maine?

ADAM: (Foreign Language Spoken)

TRANSLATOR: He says that being in Maine here is very exciting for him and he found American people talk about Darfur and they're very concerned about refugees. He don't believe himself to be here with Mayor and all the government of Maine and Senator, and they want to listen. He don't believe it himself. I guess he heard that American people, they are greatest for helping others, but now he saw and hear by himself.

SIMON: For many immigrants who come to Portland from anywhere, job at Barber Foods is their first stop. Monsieur Ahmed already works here. His cousin has already applied. Large machines in freezer-cold rooms churn out a whole line of products.

TINA HOLBROOK: We make frozen entrée dinner-type of products. We do chicken fingers, we do nuggets, patties. We do high gourmet-end, what we call Distinctions. It's a chicken breast stuffed with gourmet cheeses and herbs and spices. Pretty much we're a frozen chicken poultry plant.

SIMON: Tina Holbrook is a human resources specialist at Barber Foods. She and Human Resource Director Cindy Talbot(ph) explained that Gus Barber, who founded the company in 1955, was the son of an Armenian immigrant.

CINDY TALBOT: Gus vowed that he would not close the door to other people coming over here from other countries, that he would give them the opportunity that his father didn't have, and that's still very much a foundation of Barber Foods, that we will provide opportunity. Our goal is to keep people working for Barber Foods. Now, we have some people that will come and this is their first job in this country and they'll leave after a couple of years. However, our average tenure is more than ten years. So that tells you that people start out at Barber Foods and make their career at Barber Foods and they bring their family in.

We, more often than not, if you had come earlier in the shift, you would have seen families, children sitting in the cafeteria waiting for one spouse and the other spouse to transfer over the ownership of the children, and that's very typical. We have mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, children, working here, so that tells you that it's a very much a family.

Unidentified Man: Thirsty, okay. But what about the two people, what are they doing in the picture?

SIMON: There are classroom trailers set up behind the plant, which offers classes in English for speakers of other languages.


SIMON: The services and support available for Sudanese refugees is increasing with their numbers in Portland. Matthew Kongo, who's from Southern Sudan, is president of the Sudanese Community Association of Maine, which offers help in translation, finding jobs and working with social and welfare services. He's been here for five years and recalls choosing Maine after he and his wife and two daughters had been declared refugees and considered what places in the United States would offer them the best life.

MATTHEW KONGO: My journey started in Kartoom by train to the border with Egypt. In Cairo, we had to register with the U.N. It took me one year to process my coming this way. After being accepted, we would undergo orientation. We were exposed to some information about the United States, the different types of life in different states, weather and all these kinds of things. So we made a choice as a family that for the sake of our children, we heard a lot that Maine is relatively a better place to raise children, so we came directly to Maine. We never went to another state and change our minds, no.

SIMON: It's a nice place to live.


SIMON: The choice was between Maine and...

KONGO: And all the other states. One was free to choose any, including Hawaii and Alaska if you so wish.

SIMON: Yeah, yeah, Hawaii? You must've thought about it.

KONGO: Since our arrival we have never had any doubts about our decision. So we think that it is the correct decision to come here.

SIMON: Catholic Charities is by far the largest welfare organization offering refugees services in Maine. Perogi Gabi(ph) heads refugee services and knows about the genocide that Fur people have fled. He left his native Rwanda in 1994. He also thinks he knows why. After surviving violence and living in refugee camps, so many Sudanese choose to come to Portland over larger, warmer places like Los Angeles or Houston.

PEROGI GABI: The average number of years they spend in refugee camps is about five years or so. That's really a war zone and being placed into inner cities isn't something that works really for them, you know, for most reminds them of the war zones they came from. You know, so that's partially why they pick Maine, because of the quietness, because of the environment and the quality, especially for those with small children.

The other thing is probably the fact that, you know, like anybody else they try to recreate the very same communities they've always known, so once you hear that so on and so forth, a relative is there you, you know, you try to join and it's basically the fundamental need to recreate the communities they have always known.


SIMON: Tonight, a busload of Portland Sudanese refugees will leave their leafy seaside town for a 12-hour drive down to Washington, D.C. and the National Rally for Darfur. It will coincide with the deadline the United Nations Security Council and African National Congress has set for the Sudanese and Darfur rebels to sign a peace agreement, which will almost certainly not be signed. Even as Sudanese families are safe in Portland, their thoughts are drawn back to the family and friends who remain in the harsh land they left.

Yesterday the U.N.'s World Food Program said we'll have to cut food rations to Darfur because the U.N. has cut back on funds. There are 7,000 African Union soldiers in Darfur, but they're overwhelmed in an area that's the size of Texas and have little air power and only light weaponry to deter those who have been massacring the Fur people. The Sudanese government says it won't permit a U.N. or NATO force and this week a recording from Osama Bin Laden pledged to fight any African or international force. The Sudanese people in Portland feel anguished over the suffering of their homeland. But in the United States, they cannot only be survivors, they've become activists.

Our story was produced by Matt Martinez and recorded by Johnny Vince Evans(ph). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Weekend Edition Saturday
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.