HALLOWELL — When the Episcopal Church closed its doors in June, it was bittersweet. The property at 20 Union St. had been a house of worship for more than 160 years, but now it’s a place that a family of nine Syrian refugees can call home.

While announcing its closure, the church said it would allow the Capital Area New Mainers Project to lease the building and repurpose it into a home for a refugee family.

Chris Myers Asch, CANMP co-founder and executive director, said the organization had been in touch with the church since 2019, as it currently rents a parsonage on the property to an Iraqi family.

“Many of the families we work with are larger than your typical American family,” he said. “They’re more akin to the French-Canadian immigrant families who arrived here a century, and more, ago.

“They might have five, six, or seven children and maybe three generations in the house, so it can be difficult to find affordable housing that’s large enough to fit these families,”Asch said. “So we started our Better Housing Program back in 2017, and in 2019 we spoke with the Episcopal church members about renting their parsonage for this purpose.”

As church leadership discussed the possibility of closing, it considered how the property could be used in the future and allowed CANMP to take over and use the building for refugee housing. CANMP will also renovate the sanctuary into the Hallowell Multicultural Center, and host potluck dinners, speakers and community events. It opened the Augusta Multicultural Center in October 2019.

“It never would have crossed our minds to ask for anything like this,” said Asch. “It is an extraordinarily generous gift and a remarkable testament to their generosity.”

To help cover the cost of converting the sanctuary into the Hallowell Multicultural Center to host community events and speakers, CANMP has started a fundraiser. As of Monday evening, the group has raised $20,713, nearly half of its $45,000 goal.

A MISSION OF WELCOMING

Asch said CANMP in part formed as a response to the growing immigrant community in Augusta between 2014 and 2016.

“By 2016 to early 2017, many of us who had reached out and made these connections and started to establish relationships felt like we could do more as a community to welcome immigrants,” he said, “and to make sure they had a safe and welcoming home in Augusta.”

Asch said he teamed up with Sarah Shed from Temple Beth El in Augusta, and together they worked with two young Iraqi men, Hasan Alkhafaji and Ahmed Al-Abbas, to help get the organization off the ground.

From the very beginning, Asch said CANMP already had many volunteers interested in helping immigrants thrive in central Maine. Now, it has between 80 and 90 volunteers who they can call upon for various projects, from renovations to tutoring.

Since it was founded, Asch estimated the program has helped roughly 70 families, or about 400 people, in the Augusta area.

And with Gov. Janet Mills recently informing President Biden that Maine is ready to take in Afghans fleeing the Taliban, Asch said CANMP is absolutely willing to help any refugees who relocate to the central Maine area.

“We would welcome Afghan refugees with open arms,” he said. “Some of the first families that we worked with — there were four Afghan families among the first six family mentor teams that we established — so there was a pocket of Afghan families here in Augusta, wonderful families. They all eventually moved to Portland where there’s a larger Afghan community.”

Asch said that many of the immigrants in central Maine speak Arabic while most of the Afghan refugees primarily speak Dari.

Through his work in central Maine, Asch said he’s learned a tremendous amount about immigrant life in the United States.

“The families here have taught me a lot about resilience and staying together, even in the midst of remarkable challenges. These families come with three generations, around 12 people, and somehow they made it through the refugee experience of escaping their homes, living in refugee camps, waiting as various government bureaucracies go through the paperwork, getting on boats and not knowing where they might end up, and then making it here where they’re visibly different and nobody speaks their language.”

Despite these hurdles, Asch says they remain optimistic.

“Through all the trauma and challenges, they are extraordinarily welcoming,” he said. “You can’t talk to them without them inviting you over for to sit down and have tea, dinner or home baked sweets. They are a remarkably generous people.”

BUILDING A NEW HOME

Between the nine members of the Syrian family and a nine in the Iraqi family staying in the adjacent parsonage, the former church property is now home to nearly 20 refugees.

But CANMP had its work cut out to transform the church space into a home. Volunteers worked to build a new bathroom, shower and laundry area, as well as bedrooms to accommodate the family. The work also involved plumbing, electrical and applying a new coat of paint.

CANMP worked with Ferrusca Properties, a local property management firm ran by Efrain Ferrusca, a Mexican immigrant who manages all properties in CANMP’s Better Housing Program. Ferrusca hired Hussein Albraihi, an Iraqi immigrant who lives in the parsonage, to help with much of the work.

“(Ferrusca) would give me a job or small project to work on,” said Albraihi. “For example, we’d set up sheetrock. I would help with that and then we built the closets and after that we would mud the rooms.”

Afterward, he sanded nearly all of the walls, and also helped with painting and flooring.

“Sometimes I’d help (Ferrusca) lift heavy things, like sheetrock,” Albraihi said. “I’d help set things up for him. With everything he asked me to help with, I’d try my best to give him a hand.”

The project took a little over a month, with Albraihi and Ferrusca working from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week.

“I started with him from the beginning all the way to the end,” said Albraihi.

TRANSFORMATIONAL WORK

Albraihi said working under Ferrusca inspired him to pursue a career in a similar field.

“It’s a coincidence that I met Efrain,” he said. “I just went inside the building one day and he told me one thing I’ll never forget.

“He just told me to come in tomorrow at 6 a.m. and he’ll show me a few things,” Albraihi added. “And that’s when I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, to help people and give them a hand.”

Born in Iraq, Albraihi moved to Jordan when he was just 5 years old. After seven years, he and his family moved to the United States in April 2012. They lived in Texas for four years and in 2016 they settled in Maine.

“When we first came to Maine, we lived in an old house that wasn’t the best for a big family like us,” Albraihi said. “There were just three small rooms, and there are nine to 10 of us, so then we got introduced to Chris (Myers Asch) years later and the New Mainers helped us find a place that could fit for our family size. They found us a good place. It was more than just enough.”

Now, he is learning about engineering, plumbing and construction at Kennebec Valley Community College.

“All of these things I was really, really interested in when I was introduced to it,” Albraihi said, “and I don’t think there’s anything more interesting for me than being in that field.”

While Maine is unlike any other place he’s lived, he said he is enjoying life here.

“It’s quite different here, but I like it because everybody helps each other in the community,” Albraihi said. “Ever since I helped Efrain on the job, I got a lot of experience, and to this day I still do small projects with him. Our goal is to always help the community as much as we can and give people a hand whenever we can.”

After helping make a home for the Syrian family, he also hopes to continue helping others in the community.

“The place they lived in before wasn’t the best for them. And that church we renovated for them, it was perfect, because they liked the community,” Albraihi said. “They’re really thankful, because they’re also a big family. They’re about nine people, maybe more, so it really is a perfect place for them.”

He said Hallowell is “definitely” the best neighborhood in the area, and that people were always willing to lend a hand, whether it was with painting, mowing the lawn or working in the garden.

“It was the best thing ever, to be honest,” Albraihi said. “And I’d probably do it again, every single time. It just gives you that feeling of being proud of yourself, that you’ve done something for your community.”

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