Ahmed, who declined to give his last name, is a recent refugee from Somalia who attended a cultural orientation session at the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine in Portland on Wednesday. Ahmed, 58, has been reunited with his wife and six children after a 21-year separation. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

It’s hard to believe a medical screening would be part of anyone’s dream come true, but that’s how Jehad and his wife see it as they begin their new lives in Maine.

The couple and their four young children are refugees escaping a destructive and protracted civil war in Syria, where it was common to see dead bodies in the streets, Jehad said through an interpreter. They arrived in the United States one week ago, after a fearful three-year wait in Jordan, and they are among the first refugees to come to Maine in a year when resettlement numbers are expected to double.

On Tuesday, the family met with a refugee health screening coordinator at the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, one of three resettlement agencies in the state.

“Our first day in the United States, it was a struggle for me and my wife to know if it was a dream or reality,” said Jehad, 40, who asked that his last name be withheld for his family’s safety. “Now that we are in Maine, we really know that our dream came true.”

Earlier in the day, a family of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo attended a cultural orientation session at the JCA. And on Wednesday, the agency provided similar assistance to Ahmed, a refugee from Somalia who was recently reunited with his family after a 21-year separation.

The number of refugees to be resettled in Maine is expected to double in this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, as the federal government and resettlement organizations once again strive to welcome 125,000 displaced people to the United States, a goal that the Biden administration calls ambitious and has set for the third year in a row.


Faced with a persistent housing shortage and other challenges, Maine’s three refugee resettlement agencies will be reaching out to civic leaders in more communities across the state and counting on a growing network of volunteers to help meet the federal goal.

A total of 840 refugees will arrive in Maine in fiscal 2024, according to the Office of Maine Refugee Services, which is managed by Catholic Charities Maine.

That’s up from 419 in fiscal 2023, when most of the refugees who came to Maine were from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Jordan, said Inza Ouattara, the state refugee coordinator.

“The federal government is trying to meet President Biden’s goal,” Ouattara said. “The resettlement organizations also are setting higher goals for their affiliates. The U.S. takes a small amount of refugees.”

Portland-based Catholic Charities Maine will receive 500 of the new refugees, Maine Immigrant & Refugee Services in Lewiston will get 200, and the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine in Portland will take in 140. These numbers don’t include asylum seekers or other immigration categories that have different requirements and application processes.

While refugees are usually outside the United States when they are screened and accepted for resettlement, asylum seekers apply when they are at a U.S. port of entry or in the country already. In both cases, they claim they cannot return to their homelands because they were persecuted or fear being persecuted for their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.


Lila Silver, a volunteer with the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, leads a cultural orientation with refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The JCA already has received two refugee families this month, including one from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it expects to receive four additional families – with a total of 24 people – by the end of October, said Siobhan Whalen, director of the alliance’s refugee resettlement program. The nonprofit resettled 116 refugees last year, plus more than 40 Ukrainians who were granted special immigration status.

To prepare for additional refugees this year, the alliance is hiring new staff members, opening satellite offices in Lewiston and Auburn, expanding its financial and digital literacy program and scoping out additional apartments wherever they might be available, Whalen said.

“The housing crisis is real everywhere, but it’s particularly acute in Maine given the age and condition of our housing stock,” Whalen said. “With the housing market tightening in Lewiston and Auburn, we’re having a lot of success finding apartments in Augusta and Waterville.”

Volunteers working with the Capital Area New Mainers Project are helping to resettle growing communities of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in those two cities, Whalen said.

“They help the kids get their library cards and help the parents become members of the local YMCA,” she said. “They’re building valuable friendships with new Mainers.”

Whalen said she’s glad Gov. Janet Mills plans to open an Office of New Americans in Maine next year, with a goal of “effectively incorporating immigrants into our workforce and communities to strengthen the economy.”


“We’re gearing up and trying to prepare,” Whalen said, “but I think we need more statewide solutions to meet the federal goal.”


Last month, Biden signed the official Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for fiscal 2024, for the third year running setting the annual goal for refugee resettlements nationwide at 125,000.

After the Trump administration slashed annual refugee admissions to a record low of 15,000, Biden called for a more robust response. But resettlement agencies have yet to meet that goal, welcoming fewer than 20,000 refugees in fiscal 2022 and just over 60,000 in fiscal 2023, according to Refugee Council USA, a national coalition of more than 30 nonprofits supporting rights of forcibly displaced people.

Biden’s goal is a sliver of the 108.4 million people worldwide considered forcibly displaced at the end of 2022 because of conflict, human rights violations, famine, the pandemic or other major events disturbing public order, according to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees. Among them, 35.3 million were refugees, 62.5 million were displaced in their own countries, and 5.4 million were seeking asylum.

“The world is facing an unprecedented global displacement crisis in which record numbers of people have been forced to flee war, persecution and instability,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month. Since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, the United States has admitted over 3 million refugees.


HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, parent of the JCA’s refugee resettlement program, and other refugee protection groups had called for a higher goal of 135,000 admissions in fiscal 2024, said Mark Hetfield, head of the aid society.

“We commend the administration for the 125,000 number. It reflects a real dedication to U.S. resettlement leadership and is a worthy target,” Hetfield said. “At the same time, with the world facing record numbers of displaced persons, we need to do more.”

Blinken acknowledged that 125,000 is an “ambitious target not achieved in three decades,” but he said the U.S. remains committed to resettling key populations of concern. They include Afghan allies, Rohingya refugees, LGBTQ+ individuals, human rights defenders and people persecuted for their religious beliefs.

In response to the thousands of migrants fleeing to the southern U.S. border, the State Department has proposed admitting 35,000 to 50,000 refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean in fiscal 2024, up from 15,000 permitted last year, according to a draft proposal obtained by CNN.

Funding for refugee programs in the coming year remains in limbo, however, as the House of Representatives struggles to choose a new Republican leader ahead of a potential government shutdown if a continuing resolution runs out Nov. 17.

Biden asked for an additional $800 million for refugee programs in fiscal 2024, or a total of $7.2 billion, but the Senate proposal mirrors the $6.4 billion spending plan approved for fiscal 2023, according to the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The House bill doesn’t give a specific funding level for refugee programs.



Despite the uncertainty, resettlement agencies in Maine are pushing ahead, preparing to welcome as many refugees as possible. To increase their chances of finding affordable apartments, they’re building a network of landlords willing to rent to newcomers and expanding resettlement efforts beyond Greater Portland, Lewiston-Auburn and Augusta-Waterville to Bangor and Brunswick, Ouattara said.

“We can settle people within 100 miles of Lewiston-Auburn,” said Rilwan Osman, executive director of Maine Immigrant & Refugee Services in Lewiston. “We have settled some families in Augusta, and we are exploring other communities.”

The State Refugee Advisory Council held four quarterly meetings last year to connect and support various community representatives in government, public safety, schools, social services and health care, Ouattara said.

“There are resources that are available from the federal government to assist communities that accept refugees,” he said.

At least half of the new arrivals last year had family ties in Maine, Ouattara said, while the other half were “free cases” that could be resettled more widely in the state but would require more support from agency staff. Transportation continues to be a challenge for many newcomers.


“The public transit system in Maine is still in development, so that can be isolating in some communities,” he said.

Helping refugees find jobs is a top priority for resettlement agencies, which provide financial assistance and case management support for up to 90 days after arrival and limited case management and employment services for up to 60 months.

“All the refugees that are coming have permission to work as soon as they are able,” Osman said. “Some have English skills, some don’t. If they have the necessary language skills, they can at least start entry-level work within 90 days.”

One refugee who is eager to get to work is Ahmed, a recent arrival from Somalia who also declined to give his last name. Ahmed, 58, attended a cultural orientation session Wednesday at the JCA. Through an interpreter, Ahmed said he has been reunited with his wife and six children after being separated from them for 21 years.

He also said he wants to be a good citizen and a taxpayer.

“I’m so grateful to be here,” he said. “My dream is to settle in and get work at a job in my skill range. I am a welder and I would like to work in the same industry.”

Staff Photographer Brianna Soukup contributed to this report.

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