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Refugee and asylum seekers in Maine are future volunteers

Marwo had just finished wiping down the counters and putting out dessert at the Ronald McDonald House in Portland on a snowy February evening in 2017. She was a high school sophomore at the time and had just immigrated to the U.S. a few months earlier. Marwo had joined a 4-H club, and her club had volunteered to prepare meals for parents whose children were at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital.

After she had finished cleaning the kitchen, Marwo reflected with her 4-H leader about her first volunteer experience in her new state. A year earlier, she had never heard of Maine and couldn’t imagine helping at a place like the Ronald McDonald House. But she understood the plight of the families staying there; she herself had personally witnessed the deaths of young children back in her East Africa home. She too had needed refuge. When she found out she could help traumatized parents, she volunteered. It turns out that Marwo is far from the only immigrant, refugee or asylum-seeker in Maine to offer a helping hand.

Much of the rhetoric in the U.S. concerning immigration is framed as an argument between resource allocation to new American families versus positive economic impacts of those families. The national discussion on immigration and the rights of refugees and asylum seekers has not dissipated, even in the time of COVID-19. In Maine, many immigrants fall under the technical definition of refugee status, meaning the person is in the U.S. seeking safety. Many stories that reflect the everyday lives of new Mainers, like Marwo, get lost in the immigration debate.

In my role working with the Maine 4-H program I’ve had the opportunity to research volunteerism and actively engage youth who are immigrants in volunteer roles. In a 2016 study I conducted with a University of Maine colleague, parents who are Somali refugees told us that they were very willing to volunteer if they could play a meaningful role and had the skills. Their concerns were language barriers and child care.

Volunteerism is important to the state of Maine. A 2018 study by the Corporation for National and Community Service ranked Maine ninth in the country for volunteerism (measured by percent of population who volunteered) and volunteer hours were valued at over $947 million. As our state population trends older, so does our volunteer force. Research on volunteerism by immigrants in the U.S. is very limited, but the research that does exist suggests immigrants are an untapped resource for volunteering.

Jen McAdoo, the executive director of Furniture Friends, says, “Through the years, we’ve learned that many immigrants come from countries where there is no structure for community service. They are happy to engage in an effort that helps to pay it forward for others in need.”

Furniture Friends is a one-of-a-kind nonprofit that provides donated furniture to low- and no-income families throughout Greater Portland. In 2019, Furniture Friends provided essential household furniture to 641 families. Many of the volunteers at Furniture Friends are immigrants who help for a variety of reasons. McAdoo told me, “Many volunteers appreciate the workforce and English language skills they develop while helping,” and volunteering allows one immigrant to say to other newcomers, “Welcome to America. There are resources here to help you. The struggle is real, but you can make it.” McAdoo added that many immigrants who volunteer “feel as though Furniture Friends staff are part of their extended families and stay connected with us through the years.”

New Mainers can play an important role in maintaining a vigorous volunteer base in our state, but they need to be fully engaged and welcomed. There are many barriers for new Mainers to volunteer, such as language, lack of knowledge about opportunities, lack of time, and a belief that they might not have anything to contribute. However, research shows that as immigrants become acculturated to their new homes, their propensity to volunteer increases. Conversely, increased volunteering helps speed up the acculturation process.

Mainers have a well-earned reputation for helping each other, whether we brag about it or not. Few people understand the importance of a helping hand more than our new Mainers. As we all are going through the COVID-19 crisis together, now is the time to look for opportunities for all Mainers, new or generational, to find ways to make a difference.

Mitch Mason is an associate extension professor at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

By Community Author Mitch Mason, Bangor Daily News