Trained as a pharmacist, this new Mainer with a PhD puts in many hours of overtime as a low-wage home health worker and waits to gain asylum, her key to success here.
“I’m so tired of my life,” M.L. says with a sigh. She’s just coming off a 12-hour shift, caring for adults with disabilities, and now she’s been asked to recall the challenges she has faced establishing a life for herself and her sons here in Portland as a refugee from Burundi. Her first response was a long pause, her gaze penetrating the wall before her. Then this poised woman, who typically volunteers generous smiles and laughter, tears up.
Transitions are often difficult, but for M.L., 57, identified here by just her initials because of her legal status, change has involved one brutal awakening after the next. She immigrated with her sons to the United States in December 2014 to escape a political situation that made her afraid for her safety and for her children and their futures. Leaving behind what had been a happy upper-middle class life, M.L. arrived in Maine thinking that her husband would soon join her and their two sons, now 16 and 22. Instead his attempts to get a visa were blocked. M.L. was forced to adjust to single motherhood, immediate poverty and Maine’s coldest season all at once.
“I never planned to leave,” M.L. says of Burundi. “It’s where I planned my life.” She earned her PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacognosy at Moscow Medical Academy in Russia. The two countries had a good relationship, and Burundi students sometimes receive scholarships to Russian universities. M.L. had the qualifying scores, the right major and scholarships to study in Moscow. When she returned to Burundi, she owned her own pharmacy and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. “I always went out with my husband, my kids; I used to go dancing, I had money.”
But Burundi endured a 12-year, ethnic-based civil war. Although it officially ended in 2005, M.L. says the violence didn’t stop. “Since then, there has been political turmoil and people have been killed, which led to many fleeing the country.” When she received personal threats, she decided to go, arriving in Washington, D.C., first, then making the rest of the journey to Maine, where she knew there was a Burundi community. “I wanted my children to befriend them,” M.L. says. (Neither the New Mainer Resource Center nor the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project could provide statistics on how many natives of Burundi are living in Maine, but M.L. has found a community.) As of this writing, her husband, J.N., a doctor, remains in Burundi, moving from place to place and working where he can while avoiding danger. He and his wife speak a few times a week via WhatsApp, but have not seen each other since she and their children settled in America. “The boys miss him a lot,” she says, “but they don’t show me that, because they know I feel bad already.”
Portland has provided M.L.’s sons with culture and education, but the former pharmacist has not found financial security and her inability to gain asylum has been a critical factor in that. When M.L. and her family arrived in Portland, they received general assistance, including food vouchers and temporary shelter. “I didn’t know what to do,” she remembers. “They helped us with everything—winter clothes, addresses for soup kitchens, everything.” The pressure to build a life for her family was constant. “You have to work. They want you to get out of assistance.” She moved a few times and eventually found her current apartment, which rents for $1,200 a month. Even with general assistance support, she must work 60-70 hours a week to maintain and heat it. Her apartment, though she keeps it spotless, is frequently bug-infested, she says.
Today she works long hours as a direct support professional in South Portland, assisting adults who have brain injuries with basic daily activities. What prevents M.L. from attaining a higher paid position that would enable a better quality of life for herself and her family is neither a lack of tenacity nor a dearth of opportunities. After more than four years in the United States, M.L. has not yet been granted asylum.
Attaining legal protection as a refugee in the United States is rarely easy, and the reasons for delays like the one M.L. is experiencing are complex. Philip Mantis, legal director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, says that delays in asylum interviews and hearings are at an all-time high. Technically, he says, there is a law that administrative adjudication of the asylum application should be completed within 180 days of the application being filed. “This law of course has rarely been adhered to,” he says. According to Mantis, asylum offices changed their scheduling policy in March of 2018 to prioritize the most recently filed cases in what is known as the “Last In, First Out” policy. U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services puts it this way: “Returning to a ‘last in, first out’ interview schedule will allow USCIS to identify frivolous, fraudulent or otherwise non-meritorious asylum claims earlier and place those individuals into removal proceedings.” Applicants such as M.L., who filed before January 2018, are now backlogged, with no specific processing dates scheduled as the asylum office works through cases in reverse chronological order.
Without asylum, M.L. and others like her are ineligible to work in many professional environments. For her, this has meant functioning with employment limitations that hold her financially hostage. Her older son struggles within similar confines. He works and attends community college one class at a time because, without asylum, he does not qualify for financial aid. And his mother can’t get a loan. “[Not having asylum] affects everything,” she says. “I tell [my son] ‘take the maximum credits they allow you.’” She wants him to get his money’s worth.
“[Because of my accent] people think I’m this poor woman, that I’m stupid.”
The closest she came to working as a pharmacist was as a pharmaceutical technician at Maine Medical Center, delivering medications throughout the compound that, in her home country, she would have been measuring, dosing and advising patients about. While at the hospital, she says she worked up to 32 hours overtime per week, while simultaneously training for her current job through a program offered by Goodwill. Goodwill helped her get trained in CPR, First Aid, Non-Abusive Psychological and Physical Intervention and Certified Residential Medication Administration so that she could work with patients in Goodwill’s Residential and Community Support Programs. She cooks, assists patients with personal hygiene and transportation, much like a home health aide. Now in a field that fulfills her more, M.L. must continue working long hours at low pay to support herself and her sons, which sometimes means missing parent-teacher conferences for her youngest son. Often, “I feel like I am a bad mother,” she says.
Had she known she’d end up in bureaucratic limbo, she might have taken the risk from those personal threats and stayed in Burundi. Still, she’s convinced she made the right choice for her boys in bringing them to America, and specifically, Maine. She could move closer to her sister in Washington, D.C., but seeing her boys thrive here and have Burundi friends motivates her to keep going. “There are many young kids,” M.L. says. “They’re polite, they don’t smoke. I say, ‘I can’t move.’” M.L. has also found strong community at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood, where Mass is offered in multiple languages and immigrants find programs designed specifically for them. This has been a comfort. She also found a friend and ally in Sheldon Tepler, a local attorney. They connected early in M.L.’s time in Maine, when she was caring for two boys from Burundi who Tepler and his wife adopted.
Tepler has watched her struggle. The child of Jewish Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the United States, he sees deep parallels between what his family experienced and what refugees face today. Asylum is one issue. So is acceptance. “People think you’re dumb if you have an accent. That’s a huge barrier,” he says. M.L. agrees, saying her accent and the color of her skin have erected the highest barrier between her and the respect and opportunity she craves. “[Because of my accent] people think I’m this poor woman, that I’m stupid.” Tepler urges people to ask questions of immigrants like M.L., to get to know their stories. “Let’s start with the recognition that many of these people have fascinating stories,” he said. “It’s just interesting talking to them. Not pitying them is huge.” So is recognizing where their priorities have taken them, including into a land of professional and personal limitations. “She is sacrificing her life and her happiness for her children,” Tepler says. “This is a very common immigrant way of being. You have a [hard] life, but you want better for your kids.
Assistance organizations rely on volunteers to help welcome refugees and integrate them into the local community.
To learn more about how you can get involved, contact: Maine Immigrant & Refugee Services at meirs.org/support-us or Catholic Charities at ccmaine.org/refugee-immigration-services/support/volunteer.
Chelsea Terris Scott writes plays and short stories and is a freelance journalist. She lives with her husband and daughters in Portland.