The number of African asylum seekers sheltering at the Portland Expo has begun to drop as some families move on – including to Canada, according to an immigrant community leader who said the new arrivals fear U.S. immigration officials will arrest them here.

Kristen Dow, Portland’s health and human services director, also said that it appears that some recent arrivals have departed the Expo for unknown destinations.

In recent weeks the city has taken in 292 asylum seekers – 87 families – who have traveled by bus from the southern U.S. border. Most are fleeing political, military and economic problems in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Portland converted the sports arena into an emergency shelter amid the influx last week.

While the city has registered 259 African asylum seekers since June 9, roughly 223 stayed at the temporary shelter Tuesday night, Dow said.

“Some have left,” Dow said Wednesday at the Expo. “Some could be staying with friends. We’ve heard anecdotally that some are moving on to Canada, but we don’t know for sure.”

Papy Bongibo, president of Portland’s Congolese community, said many of the newcomers are communicating with a larger network of Congolese immigrants across the United States and Canada. Bongibo came from the DRC to Atlanta in 2003 and moved to Portland in 2010.

Bongibo, who manages a group home for mentally disabled adults and runs an African arts nonprofit, was at the Expo on Wednesday, interpreting for fellow immigrants who speak French and Lingala, a Bantu language spoken in the Congo. Many of the asylum seekers were speaking on cellphones.

“There’s big word of mouth going on,” Bongibo said. “They’re hearing that immigration is going to come here and arrest them. That (immigration officials) let them go (in Texas) only to come and get them here. A sort of reverse catch-and-release. They’re hearing that immigration is going to treat them better in Canada than here, so some of them are going there.”

The asylum seekers have traveled for months, traversing Central America and Mexico. They asked for asylum in Texas, and were cleared to travel on while they pursue legal asylum status, federal officials said. The asylum application process can take many months, and applicants are not allowed to work for at least six months after filing an application.

Portland officials have been working with local agencies and reaching out to neighboring communities for help in providing shelter, food and other services to the newcomers, who aren’t eligible for federal assistance and have been deemed ineligible for state-funding General Assistance.

All of the asylum seekers that have registered with the city since June 9 are families, said Jessica Grondin, the city spokeswoman. Individual asylum seekers were detained at the southern border, she said. How many of the new arrivals to Portland are children is unclear, but Bongibo estimates that more than half appear to be under age 18.

City officials and community members are working to keep the kids occupied as their parents wait for the next step in their journey, said Sally DeLuca, the city’s recreation director and operations chief of the asylum response effort.

The Pihcintu Chorus, a multinational refugee and immigrant girls’ chorus based in Portland, performed for the families at lunchtime Wednesday. The Children’s Museum of Maine and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southern Maine are expected to organize activities at the Expo in the coming days.

The families have been invited to attend a Sea Dogs baseball game next door at Hadlock Field on Friday evening, and a community member has offered to pay for anything they buy at the concession stands, DeLuca said.

Some families have strolled over to nearby Deering Oaks to spend time in the city’s historic park, or brought their kids to Fitzpatrick Stadium next door to play soccer whenever the facility isn’t booked.

“They love soccer, especially the older kids, so that’s been really great,” DeLuca said.

But for many of the families staying at the Expo, their concerns remain on finding a safe place to settle and apply for asylum.

Jocelyn Mongo and Kuanda Male Mibo hope that will be somewhere in Maine. Mongo worries that her four children, ages 2 to 14, won’t have warm coats when the weather turns cold, she said through Bongibo.

She asks a reporter how long her family must stay at the Expo before they can find a home and start building a new life here. She worked as a housekeeper in the DRC. Her husband was a house painter. He got into trouble last year when he supported a party candidate who didn’t win election.

“They threatened to kill me for trying to raise my voice,” Mibo said through Bongibo. “I come here because I have a family that needs to eat. I have to work to feed my family.”

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