AUGUSTA — Refugees resettling their families here from war-torn countries, and local landlords, can develop mutually beneficial relationships but they just need to learn how to communicate with each other across language barriers and cultural differences, advocates at a forum for landlords said Thursday.

Hamet Ly, Portland on-site supervisor for Catholic Charities’ Refugee and Immigration Services in Maine, urged landlords and property managers to seek interpreters when communicating with refugees, many of whom, he said, are vulnerable, isolated, and traumatized when they arrive in their new country. Ly fled his native Mauritania, a country in Northwestern Africa, to seek asylum in the United States.

“If you’re dealing with your client or tenant, you need to be able to communicate with them in a language you understand,” Ly said at the educational forum organized by the Augusta Housing Authority and Catholic Charities. “You have your lease, and you want to make sure they understand what’s in the lease because you want them to comply with what you’re offering. If they don’t understand English, you have two options: You can have them blindly sign and give them their keys, or have someone translate for them. It’s important for everyone to be able to understand each other.”

Chris Myers Asch, executive director of Capital Area New Mainers Project, an Augusta-based group that formed a year and a half ago to welcome immigrants and help them settle in the area, said the organization can serve as a bridge between new Mainers and longer-term residents, landlords included.

He said sometimes the group steps in and acts as a broker, renting a property from a landlord, assuring the landlord they will get paid at the same time every month, and subleasing the unit to a refugee or immigrant family.

“We want to help immigrant families find good, affordable housing,” he said. “Every generation of immigrants has faced the same thing. People said they can’t be integrated. But we did (successfully integrate) when the Irish came … we did when the French came. This is not the first time we’ve seen these issues in this city, or this country.”

Sue Barrows, of R.A.M. Property Management Inc. in Hallowell, which has rental units in the Augusta area, described dealing with an incident a few years ago when a female immigrant tenant couldn’t speak English and came from a culture where women didn’t conduct business. She said she struggled to communicate with the woman, and couldn’t help her because she couldn’t understand her. She suggested reaching out to members of the community who could translate.

“Maine, especially in Augusta, we’re just starting to see different cultures, so I’m not educated,” in how to communicate with refugees, Barrows said. “But I’d love to be. You have to have empathy.”

Hamet Ly left Mauritania after being targeted by criminal gangs because he worked at the U.S. Embassy there.

Barrows also gave out her business card to several immigrants at the session who said they were looking for housing for their families.

Amanda Bartlett, executive director of Augusta Housing Authority, said the goal of the session, which was attended by about 30 people, was to help improve housing opportunities, promote acceptance, reduce discrimination, and help landlords and community members better understand the refugee experience and overcome inter-cultural communication problems that often occur in landlord-tenant relationships.

Ly noted the settlement of refugees has slowed dramatically under the current presidential administration’s travel ban. He said last year the number of refugees was capped at 45,000, after decades of around 70,000 to 80,000 refugees being allowed in per year.

Last year, only 323 refugees resettled in Maine, well short of the imposed cap of 600. He said between October of last year to now, only 50 refugees resettled in Maine.

He said some 65 million people were identified by the United Nations as forcefully displaced people in 2017, but of those only about 22 million were granted refugee status. He said many of them languish in “temporary” refugee camps for years, going through the complex process of seeking refugee status because they fear violence if they return to their home countries.

He said only 189,000 people a year, of that 65 million, get a chance to be resettled as refugees. He said the process can take between two months and 20 years.

Ly said it’s often the most vulnerable who are granted refugee status, such as people with disabilities or people with many children. He also said by the time they escape their home countries and attain refugee status, many of them are traumatized by losing family members or leaving them behind, by the lengthy refugee process, and by not being able to understand the language or culture of their new neighbors.

Ly said landlords and refugee tenants can help each other.

“Of course your business is your first interest, because you want to make money; that keeps your business alive,” he said. “But we can do business in a way that makes you money but at the same time you’re taking that responsibility, being socially responsible. Meaning treating people well and giving them, as a tenant or human being, the services they need from you as a landlord.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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