On a recent afternoon, Maria Fátima Cristina Cassema and her husband, Moniz Guenge Pumba, sat on a couch in a spacious living room in Portland’s West End. Their 3-year-old daughter had just settled in for a nap. And a warm breeze gently billowed the curtain of a nearby window in a room sparsely decorated with African figurines, a grand piano and a painting of Elvis above the fireplace.

The family says they escaped political persecution in Angola earlier this year, and they spent a month in a temporary shelter in Portland. But they had been living with hosts Keith and Lauren Rosenberg in their six-bedroom home near the Western Promenade for the past week.

They’re one of the first families placed through a new home host program for asylum seekers. And it’s the first time in months they’ve been able to get a good night’s sleep, reflect on their long journey and begin planning for their future.

But ankle monitors attached by immigration agents at a San Diego detention center in May prevent them from getting too comfortable. The monitors are not common among asylum seekers coming to Portland, although Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have been issuing them to some immigrant families in border communities since last summer.

The bracelets are a constant reminder of an uncertain future, one that depends on the outcome of the family’s asylum applications.

“It’s very humiliating and it’s very uncomfortable,” the 34-year-old Pumba, who speaks Portuguese, said through a translator. He is still not sure why he and his wife were forced to wear them, when others do not. “But I’m not worried about it.”

The family is among the more than 437 people – mostly asylum seekers from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – who have checked into the temporary shelter at the Portland Expo since June 9. City officials say they need to close the shelter Thursday, so it can be turned back over to the Maine Red Claws basketball team.

Moniz Guenge Pumba, center, and his family are guests of the Rosenberg family in Portland’s West End. Keith and Lauren Rosenberg are among the first families to take in a migrant family from among those sheltering at the Portland Expo. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Officials in Portland and surrounding municipalities, immigrant community leaders and nonprofit groups are working to find permanent or temporary housing for the 136 people remaining at the Expo three days before the Aug. 15 deadline, a difficult task given the tight housing market in southern Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills recently opened up the state’s General Assistance program to the vast majority of asylum-seekers, giving them access to vouchers for housing, food, medicine and other necessities. And $172,000 has been allocated to a separate, short-term housing program through MaineHousing for those staying at the Expo. State officials say the allocation does not help those waiting for long-term, permanent affordable housing.

Since last week, city officials have been sending all new arrivals to its Family Shelter on Chestnut Street to begin the transition back to normal operations at the Expo. A city spokesperson said 19 people have arrived since Aug. 1, including two families last Wednesday.

As of last Thursday, city officials had placed 52 families, totaling 156 people, in permanent or temporary housing in Bath, Brunswick, Lewiston, Portland and Scarborough. City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said officials are cautiously optimistic that they’ll be able to house enough families to avoid having to find another overflow center. She said the Salvation Army gym can accommodate 110 people.

“I think everybody is pretty happy with the progress we have made,”  Grondin said. “We’re trying to get the number down to 110 by Aug. 15. But the work doesn’t stop. We’re definitely going to rely on the extra housing counselors and financial eligibility specialists we have hired to continue to find people housing.”

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which is helping to pair migrant families with hosts, said last week that 15 migrant families had been placed with host families like the Rosenbergs. She hoped to place another 15 families in the coming days. As of noon on Tuesday, 25 families have been placed through the host program, according to the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

Acacia Kivuvu, 3, plays with 7-month-old Zaff Rosenberg in the Rosenbergs’ living room on Monday in Portland. The Rosenberg family has been hosting Acacia and her parents had previously been staying at the Portland Expo along with other asylum seekers. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“The countdown is real,” Chitam said of the rapidly approaching deadline. “You can feel it on the floor” of the Expo.

Chitam said about half of the host families are those with financial means, while other hosts have been people who live alone and have extra space available. Several of the hosts have their own children and are volunteering as hosts for the cultural experience. Families have been placed in Auburn, Falmouth, Brunswick, Portland and Saco. Other potential towns include Freeport, Cumberland Foreside and North Yarmouth, she said.

Keith Rosenberg, an emergency room doctor who primarily works at Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford, said he began asking about hosting a family after reading local news reports about the unexpected arrival of so many migrant families. He feels a special connection with Africa, since he volunteers for months every other year at a hospital in Zambia, which borders Angola.

Lauren Rosenberg, a 34-year-old architect, said she was at first reluctant, since the couple had three children, including a 7-month old. But she embraced the idea after visiting the Expo, where hundreds of cots are lined up in rows in the sweltering gymnasium. Food, medical assessments and other services are provided on site, but it’s far from an ideal or permanent housing option.

“It’s the right thing to do to help people and they have gone through so much to get here,” she said. “I’m really happy we can do that. I also think it’s really great for our kids to be a part of that and understand there is life outside of Portland and it’s great to help people out when you can.”

Keith Rosenberg said he met with Chitam, who is one of several immigrant community leaders helping to match host families with migrant families, for a preliminary interview. And Chitam said he made a great first impression.

“He opened the door and greeted me in my native tongue,” said Chitam, who is from Zambia, where Rosenberg travels and volunteers as a doctor. “That for me could not have gone any better. To have a host family open the door and greet me in my native tongue – that for me was very touching.”

Rosenberg said he would have taken any family, but asked for a family from Angola, since both of his Brazilian nannies speak Portuguese, which is also spoken in Angola. The Rosenbergs have three children – a 7-month-old son and two daughters, ages 2 and 4. And he said his 4-year-old daughter has learned Portuguese from his nannies and also helps translate.

Chitam said most families are struggling with the language barrier. Most are downloading mobile applications, like Google Translate, to bridge the communication gap. And interpreters are also being made available to families, she said.

Within a few days of meeting Chitam and the family, Rosenberg said Pumba’s family moved into a spare bedroom and also have their own bathroom and kitchen. They’re the second hosts to be paired with a migrant family through a new program being coordinated by the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

Moving in with a host family has finally allowed Pumba and his family to catch up on some much-needed rest and focus on their asylum applications.

“It was like a breath of fresh air,” Pumba said about moving into the home. “We didn’t have much hope of staying in the city, so when they asked if we wanted to move in with a host family, we said, ‘Of course.’ ”

Pumba said his family left Angola in February to escape harassment from the local authorities. Pumba said his troubles began in 2013, when he joined a human rights group that demonstrated against the president.

The next year, he said, he was arrested without cause and held for two days before being released. He and members of his group were continually targeted by authorities.

Although a new president was elected in 2017, he said harassment and persecution of political opponents has continued. He said over the years he has attended the funerals of seven of his friends and associates, so he decided it was time to leave.

Pumba said he was unable to secure a visa and escape to Europe as others had done, so he set his sights on the United States.

Many of the migrant families at the Expo traveled through dangerous stretches of Central America, including days of hiking through the jungle of Panama and traversing the “Mountain of Death,” an 11,000-foot peak in Costa Rica. Pumba said his family took a different route. They flew to Nicaragua, via Cuba and Panama, and then rode a bus to Tijuana, Mexico.

He said they crossed into the U.S. legally in late April through an official point of entry in California and were detained in San Diego for several weeks.

First, Pumba was separated from his wife and daughter. Each was given a foil blanket and placed in a small, crowded room with a toilet for two days.

“It wasn’t that hard for me, because I was ready for it,” said Pumba, adding that he had been warned by others who had crossed the same border. “For my child it was very hard. She cried for 12 hours, yelling for me and looking for me.”

After that, Pumba said they were reunited and moved to another secure shelter facility, where they remained for nearly two months, from early May to late June. He said it was nothing like the shelter in Portland.

“Here, we were free to come and go,” he said of Portland. “And there, we could only see the road through our window.”

Before he could leave the shelter in San Diego, Pumba said he needed to give officials an address for a final destination. So he reached out to a fellow migrant he had met at a camp in Mexico and discovered that she ended up in Portland, after crossing into Texas.

With her help, the family was released and took a four-day bus ride across the country. Both Pumba and his wife still wear the ankle monitors that were placed on them in California. And they have no idea why they were required to wear them or when they can be removed.

The family arrived in Portland on June 23. They were heartened by the reception they received from fellow migrants, city staff and others volunteering at the Expo. He was especially pleased to learn that African dishes were being served at dinnertime.

They stayed at the Expo for over a month, until being placed with the Rosenbergs on July 31.

Last Tuesday, Pumba had just attended an immigration outreach event with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Portland Public Library. Immigration officials looked up his family’s court date – June 2020, in San Diego.

Pumba said he has already reached out to the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to immigrants, for help moving his case to Boston and for representation through the asylum process.

Although the family has a long and uncertain legal road ahead, Pumba said he is eager to start his new life in America.

“Everything starts with the language,” he said. “I want to improve my language, go to school and most of all work – work very hard for my family.”

Rosenberg was told to plan on hosting through October, but he said the family can stay longer if needed.

“We don’t even know they’re here,” said Rosenberg, adding that the two families occasionally dine together. “It’s like having a quiet roommate.”

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