Portland, Maine — In 2010, Claudette Ndayininahaze fled her home in Burundi, a small country in East Africa.
“When I came [to the U.S.] I think my daughter was eight years old,” Ndayininahaze said. “When I went to the airport, [my son] was crying. This was one thing I could remember was crying.”
Before she fled, Ndayininahaze was Heineken’s national sales manager. She had a bachelor’s degree, a good job and a family.
Then she began volunteering with the Burundian Association for the protection of human rights and persons detained.
Her activism came with a price — Ndayininahaze was targeted.
“People were killing [each other],” Ndayininahaze said. “The ruling party was against all the other parties. And people were killed.”
“It’s going on still.”
Ndayininahaze feared for her life, and decided to leave her home and her family for the United States. “It was so hard,” she said. “It was like when you are swimming without knowing where you are going.”
People who have been threatened by their governments can apply for asylum once they arrive in the U.S.
With the support of her new church in Maine, Ndayininahaze applied for political asylum. Applying for asylum can be a complicated process. In Maine there is only one organization focused on providing pro-bono representation for asylum seekers. That organization is ILAP.
ILAP represents about 150 asylum seekers each year, and the demand is far higher than they can meet. Legal representation can be critical in determining an asylum seeker’s fate. Susan Roche, Esq., ILAP’s executive director, said there’s an 88% denial rate for people who apply for asylum on their own.
“Even though people may have suffered something really horrible in their home country the asylum laws are actually very complex and sometimes they don’t meet the requirement,” Roche said.
In order to successfully gain asylum status, Roche continued, you must prove that you have been persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality or social group either by your home government or by a group the government cannot control.
When asylum seekers arrive in the U.S., they have one year to file their application with the Department of Homeland Security. Then 150 days after they’ve filed, they can apply to work in the country.
“Folks who are pending asylum aren’t able to apply for federal or state financial aid and tend to be in limbo around education,” Bethany Edmunds, community integration liaison and volunteer coordinator at Catholic Charities, said.
Because they cannot work, many asylum seekers rely on social service programs. Before 1996, federal programs provided those services. Now, the responsibility falls on state governments.
This process is further fraught by political conflict in Maine. Governor Paul Lepage was elected in 2011, and took a hard stance against the extension of social benefits to asylum seekers. In Maine, funding for social services is provided through a program called General Assistance.
In 2014, LePage declared that Maine would no longer extend General Assistance to asylum seekers. A year later, Republican State Senator Amy Volk introduced an amendment that returned benefits to asylum seekers for up to two years. It passed.
Many in Maine were certain LePage would veto the bill. But he didn’t. LePage thought that if he did nothing with the bill that it would turn into a pocket veto. But the state constitution disagreed and on October 15, 2015, asylum seekers were once again eligible for General Assistance. The story is still being written.
LePage says he will clarify the law with further restrictions. Though the Governor’s office did not respond to a request for comments, the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible with providing General Assistance, did.
“We adamantly oppose the extension of these services to asylum seekers,” said David Sorensen, director of media relations at the Department of Health and Human Services.
He said that asylum seeker are “illegals” who take away money from the state and have caused nursing homes to close.
On the other side, advocacy organizations like Maine Equal Justice Partners fight for the rights of asylum seekers. Equal Justice Partners advocates for policy benefitting low-income and impoverished groups.
“I had nights driving back from the legislature crying because it just feels like a lot of weight,” Robyn Merill, executive director at Equal Justice Partners said. “So much is at stake and when you know the families and you know what it means to them.”
Despite the challenges, three years after she fled Burundi, Ndayininahaze was granted asylum. She wants other asylum seekers to stay hopeful in the midst of the politics.
“You are lucky to be here because you are safe here as opposed to back home,” she said. “You need to work, you need to do anything you can, so even your family can come–can join you one day. It’s why you need to be strong. Because what I learned during life there are always challenge and you need to stand up so you can face them.”
Correction: an earlier version of this story stated that Claudette was involved with the Green Party, she was not.
By | Samantha Harrington, Hannah Doksansky and Josie Hollingsworth