Welcoming the Stranger (WTS) was born in the spring of 2015, though its roots go back much further. For several years, the global refugee crisis was growing, with daily reports of desperate people trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety, and many dying in the process. At the same time, the civil war in Syria was escalating, which eventually produced its own flood of refugees to Europe and elsewhere in the middle East.
Here in Maine we saw an influx of asylum-seekers, mostly educated, middle-class residents of central Africa’s Burundi, Rwanda, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo who were fleeing violence or persecution in their war-torn countries. In Portland, political leaders and city agencies stepped up, committed to ensuring that these newcomers had access to city services and General Assistance, a time-limited rent and food voucher program. In addition, grassroots community groups sprang up: the Immigrant Legal Assistance Project (ILAP) which works with area attorneys to provide free or reduced-rate legal assistance with the daunting political asylum process; Welcome Immigrants Network (WIN) a faith-based, umbrella group of area congregations to discuss how to best help asylum-seekers and other refugees; Furniture Friends to provide donated household goods to newcomers once they find apartments; ProsperityME which empowers, through education and counseling, members of refugee and immigrant communities to invest in themselves to build financial stability, careers, businesses and wealth; and Portland Adult Education (PAE), which continued to open its doors widely to provide English language instruction.
By the spring of 2015, several WTS founders were already involved in the refugee or asylum-seeking community, teaching or tutoring at PAE, working with ILAP and/or attending WIN meetings. It was a group of mostly Jewish people for whom the plight of today’s asylum-seekers particularly resonated, due to their own personal links to the Holocaust or because the stories of the asylum-seekers profoundly mirrored the Jewish history of oppression, flight and forced reinvention.
The idea of welcoming the stranger is a well-known aspect of the Jewish tradition. In 2015, local artist Jo Israelson created an art exhibit entitled Welcoming the Stranger at the Portland Jewish Museum, documenting the turn-of-the-century Jewish women who fed and helped newly arrived immigrants on House Island, just off Portland in Casco Bay. At that time, so many immigrants arrived there it became known as the Ellis Island of the North.
Meanwhile, in 2015, a small group of Jewish people decided to follow the lead of those before them and focus on welcoming asylum-seekers who, unlike refugees, come here with no institutional support, just a strong determination to keep themselves and their families safe. Given the trauma they experienced, the group initially considered establishing a mental health project but felt there was a lack of both the expertise and money for such a venture. In the end, the group chose to start a mentoring program, to help people one-on-one with whatever small or large issues confronted them. Focusing on daily tasks meant people didn’t have to be experts at anything but could simply be a much-needed friend offering support. WTS’s goal was to formalize friendships between local volunteers (individuals and/or families) and asylum-seeking individuals and/or families to help them adapt to life in our community.
After nearly a year of planning WTS, a fluid, grassroots project slowly took off. Some founding members left and other people joined, including a volunteer program coordinator who came on board to be essential to the cohesion, professionalism and success of WTS.
The first mentor matches were made in May, 2016 and the number of mentoring friendships gradually grew. It was soon evident that the project, which began as an initiative in the Jewish community, was important to people of all faiths and many people wanted to get involved. WTS quickly opened its doors to all who were interested, resulting in a rapid growth in matches. By the end of 2017 there were 120 mentoring partnerships and in 2018,164 matches – and growing. WTS currently works with an ever expanding network of city officials, faith communities, and local groups who are committed to welcome the stranger to our community.