Colleen Maquire, who moved to Unity four years ago, said she understands the concern shared by some residents about hosting asylum seekers. Maquire said she encountered a backlash when she helped plan Pride events last month. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

UNITY — There is a park in this sleepy central Maine town called Field of Dreams where a sign at the entrance reads, “everyone is welcome.”

Whether that sentiment extends to the entire community, though, is an open question.

A recent longshot proposal to use vacant student housing on the campus of Unity Environmental University to temporarily house up to 600 asylum seekers has created fear and concern among townspeople.

It has been pitched as an outside-the-box idea to address the challenge of housing the large number of asylum seekers who have come to southern Maine in recent months. The dormitories at the school, formerly known as Unity College, are mostly empty at the same time hundreds of recently arrived adults and children are staying in hotels or are crowded into a professional basketball arena in Portland.

In conversations with residents around Unity last week, though, it’s clear that many aren’t sold on the notion of welcoming so many new Mainers to their community. The stated concerns were often vague but boiled down to unease about the town of 2,300 absorbing that many people at once – even though it welcomed that many or more college students every year for decades.

“I just don’t know how it’s going to function,” said Jeff Curtis, a lifelong resident and a volunteer firefighter in town. “Everyone here wants to come and be in Vacationland and … it just seems out of place.


“And so many people don’t like change. They don’t want it.”

The reactions speak to a broader dynamic present in many small Maine towns – a reluctance to upset the status quo, a reflex to want to keep a community as it is or even return it to some mythic place in the past.

Colleen Maguire, who moved to Unity four years ago, said she understands her neighbors’ concerns. But she also sees potential in the idea.

“I think folks tend to react first rather than think, ‘How could it benefit?’ ” said Maguire, who helped plan the town’s first-ever Pride event last month and faced her own backlash from residents. “There are always going to be people who don’t like change and are not willing to consider the benefits.

“But I think with a plan in place, it could be a real opportunity.”

The proposal to host asylum seekers at Unity College estimates a cost of $36 per person per day, or about $7.8 million for one year. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The plan, estimated to cost $7.8 million for a year, is being promoted by the Greater Portland Council of Governments in collaboration with several nonprofits and immigrant groups. It is contingent on funding from MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority, and other sources.


Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and City Manager Danielle West sent a letter last week to Gov. Janet Mills asking her to support the proposal, especially in light of the urgent need to find alternatives as the city prepares to close the Portland Expo as a temporary shelter in August. If the Unity proposal is not feasible or can’t be ready by then, Snyder and West wrote, the governor should activate the Maine National Guard to stand up a shelter somewhere.

Greg Payne, Mills’ senior advisor on housing policy, said in a statement that he and his staff are reviewing the proposal but would have no formal role in the consideration of any application. A spokesman for MaineHousing said the agency is reviewing the proposal, too, but that no dedicated funding exists for such a plan.

The situation in Unity is complicated by bruised feelings about the college’s recent transition to distance learning and the shift of some operations to Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, where it leases space on the former state mental hospital campus. Some feel like the college has given up on its host community, and the possibility it might rent part of the campus to outsiders only adds to that concern.

But some wonder if there is a certain amount of xenophobia at work, or even racism, because the asylum seekers flowing into southern Maine are predominantly from the African nations of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Residents did not mention race when interviewed about the plan, although comments on social media about the proposal suggest that might be a factor for some.

Belinda Ray, director of strategic partnerships for the Greater Portland Council of Governments, said she fully expected the initial reaction to the Unity proposal to be skeptical, and she knows funding is scarce.

Ray said negative reactions have been commonplace in southern Maine, too, but it only makes her want to keep trying.


“I’m not sure you can go to any community and not see some level of xenophobia,” she said. “It’s a natural thing.”

Still, she’s hopeful the housing idea can succeed and said more communication might put residents’ minds at ease.

“The town’s involvement is imperative,” Ray said. “For this to be successful, we need to get all stakeholders at the table.”

Claude Rwaganje, founder of Prosperity Maine, one of the organizations that has signed on to the proposal, said the idea already is being embraced by many in the asylum seeker community.

“The conditions some of these people are in do not give them enough choices,” he said.

Last week, some asylum seekers who have been sleeping on cots spread across the floor of the Portland Expo protested conditions there. “So, being somewhere farther away doesn’t seem that bad,” Rwaganje said.


And, Rwaganje said, some people staying in hotels recently told him they have been given eviction notices.

“They said, ‘Take us anywhere we can have peace, where we can have a life.'”


Asylum seekers, even those who have been in Maine for many years, have tended to stay in communities in and around Portland. But their growing numbers and the lack of housing have advocates brainstorming other possibilities.

Ray said her organization and others have identified unused dormitories on college campuses as a possibility. Another option was the University of Southern Maine in Gorham, but those empty dorms proved uninhabitable.

Ninety minutes north of Portland, though, on the idyllic campus of Unity Environmental University, are several buildings that have been largely vacant since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only about 50 students are on campus at any given time during the year.


Dr. Melik Khoury, Unity’s president since 2016, confirmed that the council of governments and others have reached out to gauge interest in the asylum seeker plan. The college, he said, “is willing to help if there is a proper plan in place with the state, town and advocacy groups.”

In fact, the college has been entertaining ideas for ways to use the campus for some time. Not because it’s struggling, though. Since the college moved to a distance-learning focus, enrollment has grown exponentially, just not in person.

Last week, a group of area lawmakers sought a meeting with Khoury to express concerns. But his message to them was the same, according to a college spokesman: We can’t make a decision on something until there are more specifics.

That lack of specifics is part of why townspeople are fearful.

Bob Portner, who serves on the town’s planning board, said he doesn’t see harm in temporarily housing asylum seekers. But he’s not sure the plan has been fully vetted. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Bob Portner, a member of the town’s planning board, first came to Unity in 1969 as a student, not long after the college was founded. He moved back to town about 10 years ago and lives in a house overlooking Unity Pond.

He said the pushback is inevitable. “We even saw it with our beautiful Dunkin’ Donuts on Main Street,” he said.


He doesn’t think there would be a negative impact if 600 asylum seekers moved in temporarily, but he’s also not sure the plan has been fully vetted, and he doesn’t expect the idea to get far.

“Can they really make a valid judgment as to what the real impact would be without coming up here?” Portner said of the groups behind the idea.

One of the lawmakers who met with Khoury last week, Rep. Benjamin Hymes, R-Waldo, said he came away thinking the idea was not feasible.

“I think it’s a bad idea all around,” he said.

Jean Bourg, a 25-year resident of Unity who opened a library last year, said the proposal has the town abuzz. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Jean Bourg has lived in Unity for 25 years. She opened a public library in town last year and serves on the economic development committee. She said the proposal has been the talk of the town.

“There’s no consensus,” she said. “In Unity, I know that’s ironic.”


Like Maguire, she said the idea has potential, but only if the town is reimbursed for any costs associated with increased services, and only if the state gets a waiver that allows asylum seekers to work sooner. Currently, they must wait at least six months under federal law.

“My view is that asylees are very much like college freshmen. They need to be housed, clothed, cared for, and the college is totally suited to do that,” Bourg said.

Unity needs workers just like every town across the state, and farm jobs are often plentiful.

The proposal estimates a cost of $36 per person per day, or about $7.8 million for one year. The state’s current lease to use a hotel in Saco is roughly the same amount, but for half that many people. And at one hotel in South Portland, it’s costing $175 per person per day.

Mark Rollins, pastor of the Unity Church of Christ, said he’s “definitely opposed to the idea.”

“We should help people, but that’s a lot of people,” he said.


Asked how college students were any different, Rollins said they had a purpose for being in town and a structure. “They didn’t have the same needs,” he said.

Rollins said his family has lived in town for more than 100 years. He acknowledged that many residents are “stuck in our ways.”

“The perception is that they might start wandering around town,” he said of the asylum seekers.

Asked if that would be so bad, Rollins didn’t have an answer. “That’s just the perception,” he said.


Unity is a rural tapestry of farmland and forest. Its vibe has long lured back-to-the-land types and, more recently, members of the Amish community whose way of life is grounded in simplicity. It’s not uncommon to see horse-pulled buggies on town roads. Every September, visitors flock to the Common Ground Country Fair.


The town’s population growth has been gradual but steady – nearly twice as many people live here today compared with 50 years ago – but it’s still 97% white, which is higher than the state overall.

Penny Picard Sampson’s roots in Unity go deep. She grew up there and went to college there. Her great uncle was George Edward Constable, the chicken farmer who donated the land the college sits on.

Sampson moved away for a time but returned to her hometown and has served on the Select Board in recent years. She’s not opposed to the idea but doesn’t think it will happen.

“Unity just doesn’t have the infrastructure to take care of that many people,” she said.

According to the proposal, virtually nothing is being asked of the town. Preference would be given to asylum seekers without kids or with younger children so that schools are not adversely impacted. The residents would be fed on campus. As for language interpreters and other needs such as job counseling, those are expected to be brought to the campus as well.

Rwaganje said that, in his experience, “the services will follow the clients.”


Hymes, the local lawmaker, said he thinks that’s backwards.

“I’m just not convinced,” he said.

Sampson also hit on another point of friction in the town. “I think some people feel blindsided, like there was no communication about this,” she said.

At a Select Board meeting this month shortly after the idea became public, the three board members assured those in attendance that they were told the idea was unlikely to move forward. None of the members agreed to be interviewed for this story.

Most of the townspeople who agreed to speak with a reporter and provide their names were diplomatic even if they were opposed. Those who didn’t give their names spoke more freely.

“I don’t live in this town and, if I did, I wouldn’t if they all showed up,” said a middle-aged waitress at Mammie’s Country Kitchen, a popular lunch spot.


She said there has been plenty of talk in the restaurant since the proposal was made public. “I haven’t heard anything positive,” she said.

Curtis, the firefighter, said the strong reactions stem from people who feel like their town is changing too much already.

“I think the idea is that we should keep it back the way it was when it was Unity, Maine, and not flood it with people from out of the country,” he said. “There’s so much – I don’t know if you want to call it hate – but so much older folks that have their set ways and now you’re trying to put a new generation in here, and I think the generation gap is creating that conflict.”

Maguire learned firsthand recently how strong the backlash can be to change. She was one of the driving forces behind Diversity in Unity, which planned a Pride event this month, the town’s first ever. Not everyone in town was happy about it – more than 100 signed a petition against the town giving $1,000 to paint sidewalks and put up other decorations.

“If we’ve learned anything from that, it’s that it’s important to have upfront and clear communication,” Maguire said.

Rwaganje said he doesn’t blame people for being skeptical. He was an asylum seeker once; he has now been here for 27 years, runs an organization with a staff of 20 and serves on the City Council in Westbrook.

“I’m not a new Mainer anymore. I’m an old Mainer,” he said. “This notion that we are here to take things away from people already here, it’s just not true. The state is benefiting from us.”

Bourg, the librarian, said she’s been listening to people “tie themselves into knots” trying to explain why they are against the proposal. She conceded that their voices might just be loud enough to scare away the proponents.

“The same people who are against this were against Pride and are against, you know, anything that wasn’t here when they were in high school,” she said.

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