A new collaborative office space for Portland-area immigrants is scheduled to open for business Monday at 24 Preble St. in Portland.

Equipped with the latest technology and equipment, The Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center aims “to be a collaborative community and co-working space where mission-driven nonprofits, businesses and startups connect, learn and grow by providing professional, collaborative support for prosperity and inclusion,” says its website.

The center is the brainchild of Alain Nahimana, an immigrant from Burundi, and Damas Rugaba, an immigrant from Rwanda, who came up with the concept three years ago. They said they realized there were many different communities of immigrants working separately who could be more effective if they shared resources.

“This is our dream,” said Rugaba, president of the center’s board.

Armed with grants from the Broad Reach Fund of the Maine Community Foundation and donations from more than two dozen businesses, agencies and individuals, the center includes 3,960 square feet of office space, meeting rooms and business equipment.

There are no fees for membership at this point. There are cubicles, fax machines, high-speed internet and Wi-Fi available. Members share a receptionist and may use the center as a mailing address. The offices are decorated with bright paint, sleek furniture and works by local artists available for purchase through Creative Portland, the city’s official arts agency.

“We wanted to show excellence so someone who comes here is inspired. This place has to be excellent,” said Rugaba.

But the center is much more than a state-of-the-art business space, said Nahimana, the interim executive director.

With long waiting lists for a spot in area English language classes, there are plans for a digital language lab to help immigrants perfect their English.

“We need to target highly skilled immigrants who need to get into a job quickly,” said Nahimana.

The center is focused on becoming a hub for immigrant entrepreneurs, who account for a quarter of all new businesses nationally. Nahimana said most immigrants have no idea of the resources that are already available to them. The center is looking for volunteer partners to provide training in business skills, such as accounting.

“We want to connect people to lending institutions,” added Nahimana.

The center is also working to start a campaign to help immigrants become citizens. Rugaba said many immigrants come from countries without democracies and they do not understand the value of civic engagement.

“We can’t build an inclusive economy without an inclusive democracy,” said Nahimana.

The high cost of applying for U.S. citizenship has made it a low priority for many immigrants. Nahimana said it costs close to $900 to go through the process, not including legal fees. That is money immigrants could be sending to relatives back in their home countries or spending on food, shelter and education, he said.

The center is working with cPort Credit Union to help area immigrants secure affordable citizenship loans.

The center is already home to several nonprofits, including Women United Around the World and the New Maine Tenants Association. A few individual members are already working there, such as Rwandan immigrant Egide Mbabaz who is using it to launch his photography business, Egide Images.

Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: bquimby

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