Greater Portland residents of immigrant backgrounds old and new demonstrated outside the Portland Expo on Sunday in support of the city’s latest wave of newcomers.

Roughly 200 people showed up to welcome the African asylum seekers who arrived earlier this summer and have been temporarily staying in the Expo. The event was originally planned as a counterprotest to another demonstration that never took place, and eventually morphed into a larger statement of welcome and of resistance to xenophobia.

“We are here to say, ‘Not in our city,'” said Hamdia Ahmed, a local activist and aid worker who helped plan the rally.

Referring to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids that the Trump administration planned to carry out in larger U.S. cities Sunday, she shouted through a PA system, “In our city, immigrants are welcome, and ICE is not.”

Details about the aborted demonstration that Ahmed and her colleagues reacted to remain unclear. No other protest was in evidence Sunday. The organizers, part of a Facebook group called Protest Mills, did not identify themselves by name and did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Their now-deleted Facebook event invited people to meet outside the Expo to protest the new “tax and spend liberal governor.” But Ahmed, noting the location of the protest and the use of some anti-immigrant language in the organizers’ posts, suspected the event had a different focus.


“That sent a sign that this wasn’t just about Janet Mills,” she said in an interview. “This was about asylum seekers.”

A persistent theme of Sunday’s rally was the larger immigration battle. The demonstrators repeatedly called for an end to poor conditions in migrant camps on the southern border, and they decried this weekend’s planned ICE raids.

And beyond today’s politics, Mainers of different backgrounds shared the stories of their journeys to the United States.

Marcel Ilunga, who fled political violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo two years ago, said he had a message for the Protest Mills group.

“Why are we coming here? Because we’ve been mistreated at home,” he said. “We’ve been tortured.”

Ilunga and his family have been granted asylum, and he now works as a machine operator at a local business that is struggling to fill positions.


“Why don’t they come work here?” he asked of immigration skeptics.

“A lot of our families were fleeing violence when they came to this country,” said Adam Zuckerman, who helped organize a group of Jewish demonstrators. “It takes real chutzpah for people to come and harass people who are fleeing those horrors.”

Zuckerman said his own family came to the U.S. many years ago to escape pogroms in Eastern Europe.

“Let’s keep welcoming the stranger and the other,” he said, drawing cheers from the group. “We are all Mainers here.”

City Councilor Pious Ali recalled how he came to the U.S. from Ghana in 2010. His first job in Portland was in an Italian restaurant whose owner came out from behind the counter one night to offer Ali a drink.

“No thanks,” Ali said, explaining that he is Muslim.


“Ah,” the owner said. “We are cousins. I’m Jewish.”

Ali said he couldn’t think of a welcome more quintessentially American. Now, he said, “We are standing here to show another group of immigrants that they are welcome and this is home to them.”

To close out the event, Ahmed encouraged the demonstrators to continue their activism by donating to immigrant services and keeping track of ICE activity in Maine.

Then, holding signs with slogans like “Love Trumps Hate” and “Crush ICE,” the group fanned out along Park Avenue to encouraging honks from motorists.

One demonstrator put the message in terms that the asylum seekers, many of whom are not English speakers, could understand.

Written in Lingala, a Bantu language spoken in the Congo, her handmade sign read: “We Support You.”

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