By Rob Wolfe
They may be separated by language – Portuguese for Angolans, English for Rwandans, French for the Congolese – but all of Greater Portland’s African immigrant communities do share one means of communication: soccer. Or, as they are more likely to call it, football.
To welcome newly arrived asylum seekers, the Congolese Community of Maine teamed up with players from several other African countries for an afternoon of soccer in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood.
Denis Mangangu Malepa, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was one of a handful who joined the festivities at the Fox Street fields. He left his home country in 2017 amid religious and political violence, and spent time in Brazil before making an arduous six-month journey up through Latin America to Portland.
Mangangu, who speaks French like most Congolese, said the established community here had helped him to settle in by offering translation services and information about the area.
“They’ve been very welcoming to us,” he said.
Portland has seen an influx of asylum seekers from central African countries such as the Congo and Angola in recent weeks. Many have fled violence in their home countries and traveled thousands of miles to reach Portland. Immigration officials in Texas say they have been asking to come to Maine, specifically, apparently because of its established African community and welcoming attitude toward immigrants.
On Sunday, teams from the Rwandan and Angolan communities kicked off first. Rain clouds glowered overhead as the Angolans, organized and tenacious in firetruck red, pushed the ball up the field to score. Rwanda, in bright yellow, came off the field at halftime drenched in sweat and listened to a pep talk from their coach.
But these were friendly matches. Designed to build inter-community bonds, the event was not a formal tournament. Nor was there an official way to make donations to the aid effort – although the Congolese association has been receiving gifts all the same.
It puts the money toward translation services, transportation and other aid for asylum seekers, whom Papy Bongibo, president of the Congolese community, said his group would continue to support as they settle in here.
Bongibo said community members planned to drive new arrivals to medical appointments and translate for them as they negotiate leases for apartments.
He also plans to canvass the community to see how many families might be willing to take asylum seekers into their homes.
“We’re filling in wherever we can,” he said.
The city of Portland also has been swamped with offers to help. Though opportunities to volunteer are limited, the municipality is taking donations on its website. So far, Portland has received more than $500,000 from donors.
Despite the focus on donations and social services, all that many asylum seekers want to do is support themselves, pointed out Leopold Ndayisabye, a former president of the Rwandan association. Unfortunately for the asylum seekers, U.S. law prevents them from working until at least six months after they have filed a formal application.
“They’re not begging,” Ndayisabye said. “They are here to work.”
Another way for locals to help is to get educated about U.S. foreign policy, Bongibo said. In addition to welcoming migrants arriving here from the DRC, Americans can push their elected leaders to promote stability and democratic government in the Congo.
Otherwise, he said, “it’s like water is dripping from your ceiling and all you do is stuff rags in there, instead of going out and looking at the hole in your roof.”
Heavy rain was coming down after the first game, but the Congolese team still took the field. Bongibo said he had offered to take the asylum seekers back when the downpour started, but they were itching to take on the Angolans.
Thunder rumbled and lighting crashed not so far away; still, clad in neon green shirts that read “Portland,” the city’s newest Congolese limbered up to play