Mufalo Chitam, the first executive director of Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, unites people across cultures
“When you teach a woman, you teach her whole family, her whole village, her whole community,” says Mufalo Chitam of South Portland. “I learned that where I grew up.”
Whether or not that’s true of all women, it is of Chitam.
The 46-year-old Zambia native founded the Maine-based nonprofit Empower the Immigrant Woman in 2015 and, as a volunteer, ran the Empower conference and gala for two years before becoming the first executive director of the new Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition five months ago.
“When we came to Maine, there were very few immigrants,” Chitam says, remembering a time when she knew practically no one to babysit her daughter.
“Maine has benefitted from being an official refugee settlement area and having a variety of refugees from various cultures here, and many of these groups have their own community- and ethnic-based nonprofits,” says state Sen. Shenna Bellows, who was hired as a consultant to help MIRC get established as a 501(c)3 and conduct a national search for an executive director. “One of Mufalo’s strengths is bringing these groups together while honoring the importance of people’s cultures and heritage. She understands the immigrant experience in Maine.”
Cathy Lee, founder of the Justice for Women Lecture Series in Maine, says, “Often, immigrant women are very isolated, and Mufalo understands that. She saw a need and responded to it with Empower. And that pretty much sums up her relationship to the world around her.”
In 2014, Chitam made a list of organizations working with Maine immigrants and asked which of them focused on women.
“We talked to close to 30 organizations and not one was specifically targeting women directly,” Chitam says. “And their issues are different from men’s. The people who end up struggling the most are women. They give up and say, ‘why should I go to work or school if I can’t afford child care?’ If they have a language barrier, it’s even worse.”
Enlisting volunteers and sponsors, Chitam put together the Empower conference to connect immigrant women with resources to help with everything from learning English to starting a business or getting the training needed to run for office. But she also wanted to share—and celebrate—notable success stories.
“What if we start recognizing the work that some of these immigrant women are doing?” Chitam asked, envisioning the Empower gala. “No matter how little it looks to someone else’s eyes, they are making a difference in their communities. Women bring communities and families together. You see all the different groups celebrating each other’s successes.”
The 11 Trailblazer award nominees—so far—have represented the Cambodian, Congolese, Iraqi, Mexican, Burundian, Cape Verdean, Iranian, Sudanese and Somali communities. Far more ethnic groups have been involved in the nomination process and gala, a celebratory event overflowing with pride, joy and love.
After the first gala, Chitam and Lee started a monthly networking group, the Empower Maine Women’s Network, to develop relationships between immigrant women and women who have long called Maine home. “I know all these immigrant women as my friends,” Lee says, “and two years ago I didn’t know any of them.”
“No matter how little it looks to someone else’s eyes, they are making a difference in their communities. Women bring communities and families together.”
Iranian immigrant Parivash Rohan, a 2017 Trailblazer honoree, joined the Empower Maine Women’s Network to help make new connections when she moved from Lewiston-Auburn to Portland. “Mufalo is a natural leader, the sort of leader who tries to really nurture and empower others in the community,” says Rohani, who is involved with the worldwide movement Education Is Not a Crime. “She connects people.”
That’s what the conference, gala and network have done—unite diverse people.
“Empower was Mufalo’s labor of love,” says Donna Gaspar Jarvis, a selection committee volunteer. “She had the vision to highlight the accomplishments of women in the immigrant community and bring people together across cultures to network, to support one another and to learn from one another. She was a tour de force.”
Chitam’s own immigration story began nearly 20 years ago. Her husband Frank had an uncle who worked at the United Nations and brought back to Zambia several Diversity Immigration Program applications for family members. Frank and Mufalo applied. But their baby, Grace, arrived before the first large envelope from the United Nations.
“I thought I wasn’t going anywhere,” Chitam says, adding that she didn’t even open the envelope. “I had just given birth and was just thinking of diapers and that stuff.”
Months later, Frank’s mother urged the young couple to take the next step—and the next and the next. Successful applicants have college degrees and work history, clean criminal records, a negative AIDS test and enough money saved to cover three months’ living expenses. Frank and Mufalo fit the bill.
“Gosh, that process was long,” Chitam says, adding that Grace was 2 years old when they arrived at Portland International Jetport. “We call ourselves professional immigrants because we chose to come.”
Mufalo had a college friend whose brother-in-law, Martin Luwale, lived in Portland and recommended it as a good community to raise a family. He greeted the Chitams at the airport, let them take over the lease on his apartment and introduced them to other immigrants in the community. Three weeks after they arrived, Frank—who had been in banking in Zambia—got a manufacturing job at Portland Nichols. Mufalo—who had degree in public administration and library science from the University of Zambia and had been working for the Virginia-based Child Fund International—wanted to work in the nonprofit sector. Instead, she got a job as an administrative assistant at the University of Southern Maine. She worked there two years, then went on to work with United Way, followed by the MS Society, National Kidney Foundation, Easter Seals, American Red Cross and Regional Transportation Portland, building experience with organizing events and fundraisers. It was a United Way event, Six Who Care, that would be the inspiration for the Empower the Immigrant Woman Gala.
“All these things I did, I was earning respect. It wasn’t enough to tell people I used to do this or I could do that. I had to earn it,” Chitam says. “I’d paid my dues and gotten my American work experience, and it was time to utilize myself to the fullest. I was doing pockets of work in the community and wanted to do something with more impact.”
With her daughter leaving for American University in Washington, D.C., Chitam threw herself into community service—volunteering with Creative Portland, Maine Women’s Policy Center and Community Financial Literacy, all while working full time with Granite Bay Care. Meanwhile, Chitam led the all-volunteer team that put on the Empower conference and gala for two years.
And then—finally—came the opportunity Chitam had been awaiting: Full-time paid employment in the nonprofit sector serving immigrant communities in a leadership role.
As executive director of MIRC, Chitam oversees a coalition of 51 member organizations that include some of the bigger communities, such as the Somalian, Congolese, Sudanese, Rwandan, Latinos and Angolans. MIRC works to improve the legal, social and economic conditions experienced by Maine’s immigrants. To avoid any conflict of interest, Chitam resigned from much of her volunteer work, including leading the Empower conference, gala and network. But, she says, “Now I get to support their organizations from a bigger platform.” She recently represented the MIRC at the National Immigrant Integration Conference, where she heard how other states are integrating immigrants and what programs they have for women, children and families.
To Chitam, embracing groups’ existing cultures, rather than trying to erase them, is common sense.
“When we take a group and try to dismantle their culture and build on top, we destroy who they are,” she says. “That’s why some of our programs here aren’t growing as they should. It takes work, because as a program developer you have to learn their culture first, their values and customs. Learn first what they did. Then build our systems around their cultures.”
The Empower conference and gala are officially postponed, perhaps until 2019, awaiting volunteer leadership. For more information on Empower the Immigrant Woman, go to
The Empower Maine Women’s Network has a Facebook group and continues to meet monthly in the Portland area, welcoming all Maine women. For more information, go to facebook.com/groups/EMPOWERNETWORKME
Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer based in Scarborough.