Luc Mpangaje at a gathering in Cape Elizabeth over the Labor Day weekend. He came to Portland in 2010 from his native Burundi with no money and found a community that was willing to help him get housing and asylum. He is now an American citizen living in Texas with his wife and two children. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Much has changed for Luc Mpangaje since late 2010, when, shivering in a thin hoodie from the Maine winter, he knocked on the door of a stone church on Congress Street.

At the time, the then-30-year-old had just arrived in Portland from the African nation of Burundi, where his subversive hip-hop earned the ire of a repressive government and forced him to flee.

“When I got to America, I lost everything,” he said in an interview at a friend’s house in Cape Elizabeth recently. “My family, my language, my education, my music. I felt like a 4-month-old baby. I didn’t even know how to order a meal at McDonald’s.”

Now, thanks to help from First Parish Church, the Burundian community in Portland, and a kind-hearted Texas trucker, Mpangaje is a naturalized citizen. His family is with him, and safe from persecution.

Luc Mpangaje at the recent gathering in Cape Elizabeth. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

As hundreds of newly arrived African asylum seekers settle in Maine’s largest city, Mpangaje’s story serves as an example of the dream they came to pursue.

On Labor Day weekend, Mpangaje, now a Texas resident, came back to Maine to pay a grateful visit to the people who helped make it possible. He exchanged hugs and memories with the Rev. Christina Sillari, First Parish’s minister, and Catherine “Kitty” Coughlin, a church member and close friend hosting the reunion at her Cape Elizabeth house.


Mpangaje’s Dallas-Fort Worth friends know him as an airport shuttle driver, but back in Burundi, he was the notorious “Balozi,” his name in a hip-hop crew called One City One Family. He wrote the lyrics and headlined the group (Balozi means “ambassador” in Swahili) that propelled him to local fame – but also made him a target.

Though he didn’t see himself as an opposition figure, Mpangaje criticized Burundian politics in his lyrics – police brutality, corruption, campaign promises unmet.

In 2008, he released a song called “Inziragusonza,” a Kirundi word that translates roughly as “greed.” The song rails against politicians who, he said, “promise you everything during the campaign, and then, when they get elected, forget about you.”

As “Inziragusonza” played on local radio, government officials called Mpangaje in to explain himself. Instead of punishing him, he says, at first they offered a deal: Work for us, making pro-government music.

He declined. Still, the officials kept the pressure on, insisting that he stick to apolitical material – “love songs,” he said.

But around the same time, another song that Mpangaje had already recorded was due for release.


“Ndasavye Ijambo,” or “Let Me Talk,” attacked censorship in Burundi, where even now the political climate is increasingly hostile to free speech, according to international watch organizations.

That was the last straw for the government. Mpangaje was arrested and beaten in jail, but then released as news of his capture spread. Men started coming around to Mpangaje’s home and workplace. Someone lobbed an explosive into a relative’s home, he says, injuring her and forcing him into hiding.

In 2010, helped by friends and a local nonprofit aid group, he boarded a plane to America. He was forced to leave his wife and two children behind.

Mpangaje landed in Chicago with no plan, no connections, and no more than $80 to his name. Luckily, a truck driver befriended him and took him home to Dallas. From there, he headed to Portland, drawn by word of the city’s existing Burundian community.

Once he stepped off a Greyhound bus in Portland, city workers welcomed Mpangaje at the Preble Street shelter and advised him to head to local churches for help.

So with just an Aeropostale sweatshirt on for warmth, he wandered up to First Parish Church on a wintry Friday afternoon.


He didn’t speak a word of English. When Sillari opened the door, he handed her a card with a shelter worker’s number on it.

With some translation help, Sillari understood his plight. She and Coughlin raised money to help Mpangaje find shelter and pursue his asylum case.

More than that, they provided him with a community – even a family, of sorts. Now and then on his recent visit, Mpangaje referred to Coughlin as his American mother.

And Coughlin sees things the same way.

“Now I finally have grandkids!” she said, smiling down at Mpangaje’s children, 10-year-old Malcolm and 13-year-old Yasmine.

Now, with a wave of at least 400 asylum seekers settling in Maine, local congregations have been mobilizing the same resources.


Sillari said she had participated in working groups of faith leaders organizing home stays for the mostly central African arrivals. And some First Parish members have stepped up, she said.

So far the focus of these groups has been on shelter for the immigrants, Sillari said. The next stage, finding them legal aid, is still to come.

Though he moved down to Texas five years ago for a job, Mpangaje still has his heart in Maine, he said. If finances permit, he might even move back in the next few years.

In the meantime, Mpangaje is giving back to the community that welcomed him. Last August, he and some musician friends staged a benefit concert at the Portland Public Library – a test run for a Burundian musical exchange group that he’s helping to organize.

“If you do something good for me, you’ll always stay in my heart,” he said. “That’s why I keep coming back here – because I feel like I owe something.”

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