Teacher Nancy Kelly, right, talks to students during an English language class Sept. 27, 2023, at the Capital Area New Mainers Project in Augusta. Officials say more refugees and asylum seekers are moving to central Maine in recent years because of soaring rents and limited housing availability in greater Portland and Lewiston. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Inside a house opposite the Lithgow Public Library, five middle-aged women sat in a spacious sunlit classroom. Desks were neatly arranged, stationery lay scattered on the tables and walls were decorated with flags of a dozen countries.

A clock on the wall could be heard ticking. On the dial, read the words: “All things are possible if you believe.”

Some women held colored folders, one fidgeted with a pen and others scribbled on notepads, speaking only in sporadic bursts of Arabic. They had escaped war and persecution in parts of the world they once called home. On a Wednesday morning last fall, however, they were present to learn English, in order to build a new life in central Maine – which is becoming an increasingly popular destination for immigrants.

Due to soaring rents and limited availability of housing units in Portland, Lewiston and other cities, more refugees and asylum seekers are moving to central Maine neighborhoods like Augusta and Waterville in recent years, officials said. They are attracted by the prospect of comparatively cheaper rents, the slower lifestyle and small but robust communities of immigrants living in these neighborhoods.

In 2022, Augusta became home to at least 57 immigrants, and 48 settled in Maine’s capital in 2023, according to the Office of Maine Refugee Services, which is managed by Catholic Charities Maine.

Those numbers include refugees who have fled their home countries because of a risk of facing persecution and serious human rights violations as well as asylum seekers who are seeking protection from similar threats but have not yet been legally recognized as refugees.


Waterville saw 18 refugees and asylum seekers arrive in 2022, and 25 in 2023, comparatively.

But the number of people who moved to both cities is likely higher. There is no centralized government system that tracks them, and other indicators of new arrivals, such as court filings initiating deportation cases, suggest there could be hundreds more entering the state, Maine Public recently reported.

The interest in the central Maine region has meant local organizations have had to recalibrate how to accommodate a growing population.  


Esra’a Suliman sat with her eyes fixed on the whiteboard in front of her, from which the teacher read basic medical terms that the students were expected to learn if they ever had to visit the doctor: antibiotics, pharmacy, symptoms.

The teacher read them aloud, and the students repeated after her.


Teacher Nancy Kelly, left, talks to students during an English language class Sept. 27, 2023, at the Capital Area New Mainers Project in Augusta. Officials say more refugees and asylum seekers are moving to central Maine in recent years because of soaring rents and limited housing availability in greater Portland and Lewiston. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Suliman, 30, left her native Syria almost three years ago due to the Syrian civil war. She fled first to Jordan and then to Turkey, along with her husband, son and daughter. They settled in a refugee camp until their refugee status was finalized, and they could travel to the U.S. around two years ago.

“I like it here; the weather is nice,” Suliman said. “I miss my family, my brothers, my sister, my mother and my father. I worry about them because of the war.”

Suliman and her family stay in Augusta. Her husband is an engineer, and her children are in a local elementary school.

“Life is good,” Suliman said, smiling. “My husband, he helps both the children and me, with our homework.”

Many, like Suliman, have similarly arrived in the country, in Maine, and are now familiarizing themselves with a new culture and community.



Charles Mugabe, the assistant director of  refugee and immigration services at Portland-based Catholic Charities, said that cities like Portland, South Portland and Westbrook are seeing more refugees arriving. Catholic Charities works with the government to resettle incoming refugees and is one of three resettlement agencies in Maine.

Charles Mugabe, seen in October 2020, is assistant director of refugee and immigration services at Portland-based Catholic Charities and says more people are looking to settle in Augusta and Waterville because rent is more affordable than it is in southern Maine. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald file

The Office of Maine Refugee Services logged a total of 645 immigrants arriving in Maine in 2022, and 801 in 2023, the majority of which were refugees.

Among these arrivals, Portland and Lewiston remained the most popular destinations. About a tenth of the state’s refugees and asylum seekers settled in Augusta in Waterville.

In the bigger cities, however, the state’s general assistance program is struggling to keep up with the rising rents, according to Mugabe. General assistance is an aid program with fixed standards depending on factors like the size of a family and of a house.

For example, a family of five is eligible for any housing costing $1,200 or below. So, if that family finds a house within that limit, the state helps pay the amount until employment is secured. The issue is that the rents have spilled over the set standards, and eligible houses have become rare.

“The effect that we see is that people are looking for housing opportunities outside of (southern Maine) because it is becoming increasingly difficult to find it here,” Mugabe said. “Although not at the same rate, places like Augusta and other cities in the area are also slowly feeling the same effects, but, for now, rents are comparatively more affordable.”


A proposal to house 600 asylum seekers in the vacated dorms of Unity Environmental University, about 20 miles northeast of Waterville, received attention over the summer as temporary shelters overflowed in Portland. But officials struggled to secure buy-in from the community or come up with the $10 million they said was needed for the project.


Augusta has had a long history of resettling immigrants. From the Civil War onward, immigrants from Quebec started to arrive in central Maine in pursuit of mill jobs. Going back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, a small population of Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants also found their way to central Maine.

Since then, the demographics of the people moving here have changed. Most Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants who settled here have moved to other parts of the country, said Nancy Kelly, who teaches English to the local immigrant population. Now, Augusta boasts a community of mainly Iraqi and Syrian refugees instead.

Before the pandemic, the immigrant arrivals in Augusta mostly included secondary migrants; they were immigrants who had been in the U.S. and moved to Augusta from another state or city.

“Now, we are witnessing a good number of primary migrants, which didn’t happen before,” said Chris Myers Asch, executive director of Capital Area New Mainers Project.


CANMP is an organization co-founded by Asch and Hasan Alkhafaji to offer assistance to immigrants in the region through language classes, community events, minor rent assistance and finding housing, if possible.

This home on Union Street in Hallowell is one of several managed by the Capital Area New Mainers Project. Ashley Allen/Kennebec Journal file

The organization manages 10 properties in and around Augusta, five of which it owns. These houses, in the past, have been provided to immigrant families that moved to Augusta. The families could make it into their home for up to half a decade. After that, another family in need can move in.

“Now, we are focusing more and more on the needs of the primary migrants. They need more support because they have not been in the country, they have never held jobs, no experience living in the U.S.,” said Asch.

The unprecedented arrival of primary migrants has forced CANMP to reduce the five-year housing period to three years to accommodate the need for housing in the region.

“We have close to 100 families in Augusta right now and maybe a dozen in Waterville,” Asch noted. “From our perspective, it’s a good thing, the community is growing. But it’s also getting difficult to accommodate.”



The four factors that concern any refugee arriving anywhere are housing, education, employment and transportation, said Asch. Depending on where the individual or the family decides to stay, the factors vary.

In Augusta, housing is more accessible than in Portland, he said, though options are still scarce in the capital area. Conversely, transportation options and employment opportunities leave a lot to be desired here.

“And they are all tied together. You need housing first, but you also need a job and then you need transportation to maintain employment,” said Asch. “We recently had a cobbler from Syria who couldn’t find a job. We are trying to help but he doesn’t know English. Learning the language is also a major part of the process.”

Haji Mohammad, left, reads aloud from a story on the whiteboard during an English language class with Nancy Kelly, right, Sept. 27, 2023, at the Capital Area New Mainers Project in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

That’s where Kelly comes in. She has been teaching English as a Second Language, or ESL, in Augusta since the 1980s. Amidst a lack of ESL teachers, Kelly teaches English to immigrants three days a week at the CANMP house on State Street, including Wednesday mornings.

“Teaching a second language is difficult, especially to adults,” said Kelly. “I try to assess them, if they know how to read or write Arabic, then they have a better chance. Some of the people don’t have even a basic education and after coming here, suddenly, they are expected to learn a new language. It’s very hard for them.”

She added that there were instances when students came to her class after living the past few years in refugee camps without schooling and had to start from scratch.


The efficient plan is to pay special attention to the younger immigrants, she said.

“The adults must learn, too, and they want to, but they also rely heavily on their children. To read menus, to order groceries, read bills,” Kelly said.

Kelly also admitted that sometimes, after spending hours with her students, teaching them a language they desperately need to learn, they look at her as more than a teacher.

Nancy Kelly teaches an English language class Sept. 27, 2023, at the Capital Area New Mainers Project in Augusta. Officials say more refugees and asylum seekers are moving to central Maine in recent years because of soaring rents and limited housing availability in greater Portland and Lewiston. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“Like something of a cultural broker. They come to me with problems,” said Kelly. “Some parents would bring school notices to me that say their child has been suspended, and I must translate it for them. It’s not my job, but I do it. If I won’t, who will?”

Between reading from printouts of basic conversations immigrants should expect, Kelly cracked jokes and waved her arms to get the humor across. A game of charades. Some students understood, and those who didn’t were helped by the ones who did.

The entire classroom learned collectively, pausing to smile at Kelly’s approval of their efforts. And to laugh when Suliman looked innocently at Kelly when asked if she thought her to be a good teacher.

“I love you, Nancy,” she replied.

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