When 448 Asylum Seekers Came To Portland Last Summer, City Officials Called Her
Mufalo Chitam draws on her own experience to help the state’s newest residents rebuild their lives.
By Michaela Cavallaro
Photographed by Ryan David Brown
Standing in a Portland freight elevator on a sunny Saturday morning, Mufalo Chitam has an urgent question on her mind: where are the trucks?
Earlier this year, Portlanders eagerly donated cash, clothing, and household goods to support a wave of asylum seekers who came to the city from the Texas border — 448 people, in total. City leaders opened a temporary shelter at the Portland Expo and set out to help families that had endured arduous journeys, largely from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to get on their feet in America.
Among the first calls that Portland officials made was to Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, which swiftly mobilized. The organization brought in community members to cook familiar African food for the Expo families, vetted volunteers to host the newcomers in their homes until permanent housing could be found, and, with the help of local churches, sorted, distributed, and stored the donated supplies.
Chitam came to the U.S. from Zambia in 2000 with her husband and daughter. The permanent-resident status that her family acquired through a Clinton-era diversity visa lottery seems a world away from the uncertainty facing asylum seekers today. Still, Chitam says, in many ways, she understands what the recent arrivals are facing.
“It was really hard,” she remembers. “Today, there are organizations helping with integration, helping people find jobs and get their kids into school — back then we were doing it all on our own.”
Watching her in the freight elevator, it’s easy to see why she’s a good fit for her MIRC role, which requires flexibility, persistence, and the ability to switch focus deftly from big-picture policy concerns to the details of an asylee’s day-to-day existence. In those missing trucks, MIRC had planned to move some of their donated goods to Lewiston-Auburn, where some Expo families are now living with host families or have settled into homes of their own. That would ease the distribution process and allow MIRC to switch to a smaller, less expensive storage unit.
Chitam, wearing mustard-yellow shorts and a T-shirt that says “MAINE CULTURE,” is blunt with the few other women in the elevator, who’ve driven to Portland from L-A in a pickup truck. “We don’t need a pickup,” she says. “We need U-Hauls, and we need them now.”
One woman says she’s heard that the U-Hauls aren’t coming. Chitam doesn’t gripe or even sigh. Instead, she grabs a cart and starts loading boxes back into the original storage unit. She stops only to take a call — her voicemail is perpetually full — from someone asking for help with their new apartment.
In a few days, she’ll travel to Philadelphia to attend a summit on the 2020 Census. “It’s important that our communities get counted,” she says. In the meantime, there are boxes to move, mail to pass along, a family that needs diapers for a fast-growing toddler — all part of the painstaking process of helping immigrants become Mainers. “Being able to see somebody have a house — it’s so fulfilling,” she says. “I remember how it felt being able to walk into my own house for the first time: to open the door and to lock it. That’s the heart of what our organization does.”