Nsiona Nguizani is helping asylum-seekers and their children get used to life in Brunswick. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — So far, all 15 families that sought refuge in Brunswick from their home countries remain healthy and are practicing social distancing, but coronavirus is taking its toll on Brunswick’s asylum seekers and the town’s cultural broker in other ways.

Nsiona Nguizani was hired in August to help facilitate the complicated cultural transition for the dozens of people who arrived in Brunswick last summer, seeking asylum from violence and persecution in countries like Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

That transition has proven to be even more difficult than planned, with the outbreak of a global pandemic, causing fear, stress, interruptions in instruction and added complications in the already complicated immigration process. 

“For the folks, the traumatism is back on, but they are fighters, they are hanging in there,” Nguizani said in an email. 

Claude Rwaganje, founder and executive director of PropserityME, a nonprofit that works with immigrants, told the Portland Press Herald last month that in the beginning, “people who were used to disasters in their home countries, such as wars, didn’t take this seriously.” 

Groups in Portland and Lewiston mobilized to distribute resources in multiple languages to reach people to communicate the importance of social distancing and buffer zones in communities accustomed to embracing and close physical contact in daily life.

Now, everyone is concerned and taking “extreme precautions,” social distancing and canceling all planned trips outside of Brunswick Landing, the site of a former Naval base where refugees have settled, Nguizani said. 

This leaves Nguizani as the “only outside person right now,” making trips to the store for food, household supplies, baby supplies and prescriptions, as well as keeping general assistance appointments and acting as liaison for the hospital, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

In an earlier interview, Nguizani explained the weight placed on him as the “father” of so many families.

“Can you imagine?” he asked at the time. “You have to deal with school, health, legal matters. I mean, they rely on you to live.” 

Now, this rings more true than ever, and Nguizani said that with all the additional work, the pandemic is especially hard on his loved ones. 

“My family is the one suffering the most at this time,” he said. “I can’t help my own kids in this (continuing) home study situation (or) my wife in this stressful confinement period.” 

Instead, Nguizani has found himself acting as a tutor for some refugees that are also high school students when he can. His time is limited but he is trying to do his part to help students get an adequate education— something that right now he said he is not sure is happening. 

“Most of our students are English learners and the books and school works are in English,” he said “It’s already hard for them to be in a classroom with a teacher, imagine now (with) no teacher at all. The parents are limited as they don’t speak the language themselves.” 

Language instruction for the adults has also been a bit of an unknown, he added, but for now they are using Google for virtual language classrooms, which he hopes will help them keep up. 

One of the biggest questions remains what will happen with the asylum and immigration processes. 

Each person has to apply for asylum before the first anniversary of their arrival, but the process takes much longer than they. The first two families to schedule appointments to go before a judge won’t be seen until November and next March. 

Everything has been postponed, Nguizani said, but has not been rescheduled. 

In the meantime, he is trying to make sure everything is in order for when things get back up and running. 

“I’m trying to avoid giving ICE or USCIS any reasons to accuse these folks when everything reopens in the future,” he said, referring to the federal immigration enforcement departments.

Nguizani is just thankful that right now, everyone is healthy. 

There was concern earlier with a member of one family experiencing severe headaches, but it turned out to be a “false alarm,” unrelated to coronavirus, he said. Nobody in the group falls into the high-risk category. 

“Nobody can give you the exact or realistic prognostic or impact right now,” he said. “We’re going to wait and see what the future reserves (for) all of us as a community, town, state, country and world. This is a pandemic.” 


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