Florence Olebe works as a translator at Maine Medical Center but is also a leader in the immigrant community. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Florence Olebe isn’t tired yet.

“So far, I feel that I can still do some work,” Olebe said. “I don’t feel so tired because my job is not physical.”

Olebe, who lives in South Portland, was born in South Sudan. She fled to Egypt with her family in 1998 amid famine and war, and she came to the United States later that year.

The mother of seven sons, Olebe has worked as a nutritionist, a caseworker and a translator. She coordinated children’s nutrition programs for the United Nations Children’s Fund in her home country, and she later worked for Catholic Charities in Maine. She opened what she believes was one of the first African restaurants in Portland in the early 2000s, but she said she closed it because she couldn’t keep up with the demand.

The common thread in her varied life experiences is that she has always worked to help people understand each other better.

When she ran her restaurant, Olebe wanted to help Americans learn about African foods and culture, and she even held cooking classes for local students.


Fifteen years ago, she helped start the New Mainer Domestic Violence Initiative, and she helped train community leaders on the relevant laws and resources in the United States. Beyond the training sessions, she has for years volunteered with individual families who are experiencing domestic violence. She said she still does this a couple times each month.

“Back home, when there are cases in the family, they call the elders,” Olebe said. “They consider me an elder.”

And five years ago, she began working specifically as a medical interpreter through Maine Medical Center, accompanying patients who speak little or no English to their appointments. Many of the people she works with are elderly, and she is on call 24/7.

Malvina Gregory, the interpreter services manager at Maine Medical Center, said the interpreters work long hours, at times in the middle of the night and on the weekend.

Olebe interprets Acholi, as well as Sudanese and Juba Arabic. Gregory said those languages are relatively common in the Portland area but rare on a national level. She described Olebe as “kind, warm and hardworking.”

“Given that the community she serves often has cultural barriers in addition to linguistic barriers, her expertise and cultural brokering is particularly valuable,” Gregory said.


Now 62, Olebe helps care for her 6-year-old granddaughter and travels to see her mother in Uganda a couple times each year. She said the South Sudanese community in Portland has grown since she moved to the United States, so much that holiday gatherings have multiplied at this time of year.

“What I want people to know is that the people who came early like me are now used to the system, and the people who have just arrived, we should give them a chance,” Olebe said.

And she’ll be around to help because she isn’t stopping any time soon.

“When I retire, I can relax,” Olebe said.

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