The migrant crisis overwhelming several southern Maine cities has captured headlines this year. City of Portland officials just this week once again opened the Portland Expo building as a makeshift shelter for newly arrived asylum seekers. Other city leaders have said municipal budgets are strained to the break point. And, in Augusta, policymakers are debating various proposals that aim to alleviate the crisis.
On Tuesday, Luc Kuanzambi, a Congolese refugee living in Maine, gave a public presentation as part of an educational series coordinated by the Prince Memorial Library in Cumberland.
Kuanzambi is the founder of Xenos Communications Consulting and a former aide to foreign governments in the sub-Saharan region of Africa.
The goal of the presentation was to allow Kuanzambi to share is deep knowledge of Angolan and Congolese history with Mainers so that they might better understand the historical, political, and economic roots of Maine’s refugee crisis.
According to Kuanzambi, the refugee crisis has been driven primarily by western foreign policy decisions, such as European colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
More recently, he said, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s decision to engage in various regime change operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo have fueled political discord and empowered brutal political leaders.
Asked why sub-Saharan Africans, who typically come to the Americas through Brazil and head northward, end up in frigid Maine rather than the dozens of other jurisdictions they pass through on the way, Kuanzambi pointed to Mainers’ kindness and humanity.
“I will say, there are humane policies here,” he said. “Some of my friends, some of my American friends, have called them lenient policies.”
“But you know, Congolese and Angolans arriving here are not political experts in American politics. All they’re seeing are signs of humanity. It is your kindness, it is your sense of welcome, your sense of sort of invitation — especially in 2019 when the Mayor of Portland extended the invitation — that threw a life vest to those who were slumped in a sea of desperation,” he said.
More so than most states, Maine provides welfare benefits to asylum seekers who arrive in the state, including General Assistance through municipal governments, state-run welfare programs, housing benefits, and education.
Hundreds of refugee families have had their housing costs paid for by taxpayers, and many of those families will be eligible for a forthcoming affordable housing program that takes care of their rent for two years.
And the legislature is currently considering a proposal that would allow asylum seekers, refugees, and even illegal immigrants to receive free and low-cost healthcare.
However, Kuanzambi said Congolese and Angolan migrants are not coming to Maine just because of the generous social safety net.
“Now, some people will claim that people are coming here for… handouts,” he said. “It’s not true. they’re coming here for a sense of identity and security. Maine has a path for humanity. It is not just economically, it is humanly. It’s really hard to put into words. What your kindness has extended to people is a chance to recover identity.”
“Part of why we’re coming here, it’s because we’re being beautified, we’re being elevated, we’re being revalued, raised to the level of humanity by gaining basic access to right, by seeking protection from a government that could dispose of you… and also because we see possibility, and we cannot deny it, for economic integration for us here,” he said.
“I was a junior executive in the Congo. The money I was making is a joke as opposed to what I’ve done with entry level jobs here in Maine. It cannot be denied. It is one piece of the attraction. But it is not the only piece of the attraction,” he said.
“So reducing our coming here to economical matters is an oversimplification of a very complex situation,” he said.
Watch Kuanzambi’s whole presentation below: