When Prince Pombo Mafumba arrived in Portland on June 12, it was the last leg of a yearslong journey that began with his escape from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a long, dangerous journey through Central America to reach the United States.

Mafumba, a political science professor, is one of the more than 400 African migrants who crossed the southern U.S. border and came to Portland since June 9 to seek asylum from political persecution and violence in his homeland. Upon his arrival, he found a community ready to accept an unexpected influx of asylum seekers. City leaders quickly converted a basketball arena into an emergency shelter with over 300 cots and arranged for food, medical care and casework to be provided on site. Private citizens donated hundreds of thousands of dollars and volunteer time to help the new arrivals.

But other, less friendly forces also were at work. Unbeknownst to Mafumba, someone had created a fake Twitter account in his name shortly after he was mentioned in a newspaper article. The imposter used a photo from the newspaper as his avatar and began tweeting in broken English about his experience in Portland in an obvious attempt to smear his fellow asylum seekers and stoke xenophobia and anger among Mainers. The account posted repeatedly about Ebola, smears against gay men, boasts of being taken out to restaurants and false expectations that the government would provide him a house and a car.

Prince Pombo Mafumba talks on the phone as he waits at the Greyhound bus station with his wife, Thaiz Santos Neri, and daughter, Heaven Pombo Neri, after arriving in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I was surprised and shocked and scared,” Mafumba said of his reaction when the account was brought to his attention by a leader in the local Congolese community. He reported the fake account to police. “I never experienced stuff like this before.”

It’s unclear who is behind the fake account. Messages sent to it were not returned this week.

The South Portland Police Department confirmed Thursday that Mafumba had reported the incident and that a fraud investigation was underway.

Mafumba said the comments being attributed to him on the fake Twitter account are the exact opposite of what he truly feels and thinks. He wasn’t even staying in the Portland Expo when the vast majority of the tweets were posted.

Within three days of his arrival, Mafumba, who speaks English, had befriended a couple volunteering at the Portland Expo who offered to let Mafumba’s family – a wife and 1½-year-old daughter – live in their South Portland home.

“When you see something like that it must make you feel good,” Mafumba said Wednesday of the welcome he has received in Portland. “You’re like ‘I never imagined that somewhere they can receive me like this and take care of me like this’ because we have never experienced such things in our country.”

Within the last week, the account was picked up by the Maine First Project, a conservative political organization run by Republican state Rep. Larry Lockman, who has repeatedly pursued anti-immigrant legislation and echoed President Trump’s “fake news” talking points.

Lockman sent out a fundraising email Monday with the subject line: “Bogus ‘asylum seekers’ want you to pay for their nice cars and nice houses.” It echoed false statements on the fake account, saying that the family had turned down housing offers in Brunswick or Ellsworth and that his wife wanted a house in Portland “near stores and restaurants.” Lockman dubbed Mafumba the “Prince of Portland.”

Although Lockman said in the email that “I find it hard to believe this isn’t a parody account,” he nonetheless repeated the fake messages and linked back to the fake account. He asked his supporters to share the message widely and contribute money to his political group.

Lockman could not be reached by phone for an interview, but in an email response to written questions he stood by his characterization that noncitizens “want Maine taxpayers to give them free stuff.”

Asylum seekers are prohibited from working under federal law until at least six months after their asylum application is filed. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, last month made an emergency rule change to the state General Assistance law to make the newly arrived asylum seekers eligible for vouchers for food, shelter, medicine and other necessities for up to two years.

Lockman criticized Mills for “directing $170,000 of state revenue be spent for the sole benefit of noncitizens” and directing MaineHousing to put them “ahead of many hundreds of life-long Mainers on waitlists for affordable housing.”

Mills’ representatives did not return a request for comment.

But MaineHousing spokesperson Cara Courchesne said the roughly $172,000 in additional funding was used to create a separate short-term housing program for the migrant families, whereas the waitlists are for long-term affordable housing. “The reality is nobody is being displaced off of any waiting lists,” Courchesne said.

Lockman said he didn’t know whether the Twitter account was fake, “and if it is fake, I can assure you unequivocably that I had nothing to do with it, and I don’t know who did. I do know that it’s still accessible.”

He added, “I will be more than happy to inform Maine First Project subscribers of the facts about the Twitter account if and when I’m provided with verification.”

Impersonation accounts are a violation of Twitter’s rules. The account must portray another entity in a “misleading or deceptive way” to violate the rules, according to the Twitter policy. Victims of impersonator accounts can file a report with Twitter. And bystanders can report suspicious activity and fraudulent accounts to Twitter, which can remove them.

But an account will not be removed if a user shares the same name but has nothing else in common or if the profile clearly states it is not connected to or affiliated with any similarly named individuals or brands.

As of Thursday morning, the account was still active, even though several people, including local activist Hamdia Ahmed, have reported it to Twitter.

 

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