When University of Maine School of Law students walked into the Portland Expo — to begin a day of aiding the roughly 200 asylum seekers inside — they saw the rows of cots and the crowd and the playing children.
It looked like a refugee camp, albeit a safe, clean and friendly one.
“I think that’s something really powerful to see in my home,” student Ralph Humiston said. “It is overwhelming because everyone you speak to wants you to help them.”
And there was only so much that either he or his four fellow students or their professor could do that day.
“For now, we’re beginning with this one small step. But there is much work to be done,” Humiston said.
The day was organized by the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a Portland-based agency that has a long record of working with the immigrant community. Their work is to help people navigate US immigration laws and their accompanying bureaucracy.
Professor Anna Welch, who runs Maine Law’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic (a program within Maine Law’s Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic) and teaches Immigration Law, asked for student volunteers to assist with ILAP’s work, identifying each of the asylum seekers and defining some of their initial needs.
Welch and Humiston were joined by Karl Fisher, Haley Hunter, Kristin King and Andrew McLean.
“We just wanted to help,” McLean said. “It was an all-hands-on-deck type of effort. ILAP doesn’t have dozens and dozens of staff, so any assistance we could give was helpful.”
King praised the City of Portland and the many agencies that have come to help the immigrants.
“It was very organized,” she said. “It felt very secure. Everyone was friendly. It was amazing to see the collaboration going on. The Boys and Girls Club was there, making sure the kids had stuff to do. It was like a toddler party. There was good energy in the room.”
But as she began to meet people, mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she thought about all they had done to get to the US to arrive here with their families and few belongings. And most spoke no English. A few spoke French. Many more spoke Portuguese or Lingala.
“My heart went out to them,” she said.
Karl Fisher agreed.
It’s one thing to read about what’s going on at the southern border. Just to put a face to what we read was really powerful for me,” he said. “It was just a very humbling and humanizing experience.”
McLean wishes more people could have his opportunity.
“I think if people just stopped talking for a moment and listened to their stories,” he said. “You just remember that these are human beings with their own stories and their own challenges, and they’ve seen and experienced things that we can’t even fathom. That is very humbling, for me at least. And I think it would be for most people.”
The group spent as long as 12 hours in the downtown arena, working to help the people who, in many cases, just want to be heard.
And for Welch, who has spent her career working with immigrants, the experience remained powerful.
“After each individual meeting with the families, I just welcomed them,” Welch said. “I said, ‘We’re so grateful and lucky to have you in Maine.’ Often they would tear up. I feel gratitude that they decided to come here and that our community has risen to the occasion.”