COLIN WOODARD, STAFF WRITER
First of six parts
After seven months locked up together in a one-room jail and no court appearance in sight, the 47 protesters decided they’d had enough. They set their room on fire and knocked aside the guards who opened the door to investigate. Outside, they ran in all directions, seeking cover in the cacophonous vastness of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the world’s poorest and most dangerous countries.
They had protested the president’s plan to rule the country for life – and now, as jailbreakers, they could be shot on sight.
So began Prince Pombo Mafumba’s five-year, 16,000-mile journey from the country of his birth to safety and a new life in Freeport, Maine, a trip that took him through 13 nations on three continents. More than 11,000 of those miles were traversed by bus, taxi and truck, and another 60 on footpaths over mountains, through tropical forests, interrupted by harrowing crossings of raging rivers and murderous bands of armed gunmen.
Read the Long Way Home series
- Sunday: Why people leave their homelands
- Tuesday: Why they come to Maine
- Wednesday: Navigating life in a foreign land
- Thursday: Years of waiting in limbo
- Friday: Maine’s capacity to help
- Saturday: Those who came before
Along the way, he lived and worked in two countries, learned new languages and professions, met his wife and became a father, survived a yellow fever outbreak in Angola and the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil and encountered his first real winter in Buffalo.
The Freeport resident’s trek from Central Africa to southern Maine, epic as it was, is not unusual. Over the last four years, thousands of Africans, mostly from the DRC and Angola, have made the harrowing trip, scraping together enough money to fly to Brazil or Ecuador – because they easily grant tourist visas – and then paying a shifting cast of human smugglers to get them across more than a dozen borders before they seek asylum in the United States.
Previous waves of immigration to Maine were dominated by resettled refugees – people whose lives were imperiled in their own countries who were granted safe sanctuary by U.S. diplomatic staff before entering the United States. Some groups – like U.S.-allied Vietnamese escaping the collapse of South Vietnam in the early 1970s, Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in the late 1970s, and Bosnian war refugees in the early 1990s – settled directly in Maine. Others – including thousands of Somalis who’d been living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Atlanta, were initially sent to other parts of the country but came to Maine seeking better treatment and opportunities.
The most recent wave, by contrast, has been dominated by asylum seekers who made their way to the southern U.S. border, applied for asylum based on the fear of being persecuted or killed at home and, when asked by officials where they would like to be given a bus ticket to, chose Maine. Almost all of them are from the DRC and neighboring Angola – deeply troubled countries that account for a tiny proportion of the overall migrant flow across Panama’s infamous Darién Gap but make up about four-fifths of recent arrivals in Maine.
“When I first started working here in 2007, my clients were Iraqi, Somali and Sudanese,” said Jennifer Bailey, an asylum attorney at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a Portland nonprofit that provides legal assistance to immigrants. “Now the most visible are Angolan and Congolese and many of them have had to take the long, slow journey via South and Central America.”
Nobody really knows how many asylum seekers have come to Maine in this recent wave, which made national headlines in the summer of 2019 when Portland first had to open the Portland Expo as an emergency shelter to house hundreds of families arriving by bus from processing facilities in Texas. The state doesn’t keep unified data, and while individual towns and cities tally the number of asylum seekers applying for assistance, they have no way of reconciling one another’s lists to correct for double-counting of individuals who move from, say, a shelter in Portland to a hotel room in Freeport to an apartment in South Portland.
Mardochee Mbongi, president of the Congolese Association of Maine, is working on an informal census to determine how many of his countrymen and women are here, but he estimates it is at least 5,000. “When I came here in 2016, there were like 600,” said the human rights activist, who escaped detention in Kinshasa and fled via Liberia in 2014. “Nowadays, immigrants see Maine as a good place for immigrants, a place where you can live in peace and have no issues.”
“These people are becoming the workforce for Maine, which really needs this, because once they have settled and receive their work authorization (from federal immigration authorities), then they can start working and renting houses and buying cars and paying taxes,” he added.
The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram last year asked a number of municipalities in Cumberland and Androscoggin counties to share their tallies of asylum seekers registering for assistance by nationality and year of arrival. The largest city, Portland, did not provide the information, but South Portland, Lewiston, Westbrook, Brunswick and Freeport did. All of them reported the vast majority of newcomers to be from Central Africa, with Angola usually first, the DRC second, and Rwanda third.
Lewiston, for instance, recorded 476 asylum-seeking cases involving over 1,000 individuals from 2018 through August, 264 of which were from Angola, 115 from the DRC and 25 from Rwanda. Over the same period, Westbrook had recorded 354 individual cases, of whom 165 were from Angola, 139 from the DRC and 22 from Rwanda. South Portland had recorded 190 cases between 2018 and the end of July, of which 37 were from Angola, 35 from the DRC and 70 from Rwanda.
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“The stories I hear from most of them coming in the past two years is that they had relatives here and that the system Maine has for refugees and resettlement is the best model,” said Abusana “Micky” Bondo, co-founder of In Her Presence, a nonprofit supporting immigrant women. Bondo grew up in the DRC, was educated in Belgium, emigrated to the U.S. in 1996, and currently serves on the Portland school board. “You can come here and, with general assistance, can get shelter and food and the foundation for a start on a new life.”
Many of the newcomers speak French because the Democratic Republic of Congo was colonized by Belgium, whose King Leopold II presided over a horrific regime that triggered millions of deaths there at the turn of the 20th century. Angola is Portuguese speaking, but for a variety of ethnographic, historical and political reasons, many Angolan passport holders here have Congolese roots or ties and often also speak French or Lingala, a Bantu language spoken in parts of both countries.
A small but significant subset of Congolese asylum seekers in Maine, sources within the community say, actually want to hop one more border to reach Quebec, where French is the official language. “Maine is next to Canada and that is a big aspect of why people are coming here,” said Mafumba, who originally intended to end his family’s overland journey from Brazil in Quebec. “I know some who are now in Canada who seem happy because they speak French easily and they don’t need somebody next to them to interpret all the time.”
Regardless of their final destination, people often have plenty of reasons to want to leave Congo, Angola and Rwanda.
After a horrific period of Belgian rule – tens of thousands of workers had their hands chopped off for failing to meet production quotas and the population contracted by as much as 10 million between 1885 and 1908 – the DRC experienced the brutal 32-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, which featured a decades-long conflict involving many neighboring countries in which some 6 million died. This was followed by 21 years of brutality under Laurent Kabila and his son Joseph, who was in office until 2019. Protesters and government opponents were routinely arrested and often tortured and killed.
“There were 53 years of terror and threat, and most of us are traumatized because of those experiences,” said Mbongi, who was arrested by the younger Kabila’s police in 2014, escaped by impersonating a fellow prisoner scheduled for release and fled abroad, leaving his wife and two children behind, never to be reunited. “If you decide to participate in the opposition movement of even human rights activism in Congo, you have to be prepared to die.”
The World Bank reports that the DRC has the eighth-highest poverty rate in the world, at 63.9%.
Angola was home to one of the Cold War’s most protracted proxy conflicts, a 27-year civil war in which Soviet and Cuban troops backed a nominally communist regime against rebels backed by the U.S. and South Africa. Between 500,000 and 800,000 people are believed to have died by the time the conflict ended in 2002. Since then, the oil-rich country has been ruled by a brutal dictatorship that tolerates no dissent. A severe drought in 2016 triggered a food crisis affecting more than a million people and a downturn in oil prices triggered an economic crisis. Sixty-two percent of the population makes less than $2.15 a day, according to the World Bank.
Rwanda was the site of a 1994 genocide in which as many as a million ethnic Tutsi were killed, mostly with machetes. When Tutsi guerrillas seized control over most of the country, two million Hutus fled across the border to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwandan forces followed, embroiling that country in what some have called an “African World War” to exploit the DRC’s resources from 1996 to 2002 . While the situation in Rwanda itself has stabilized over the last decade, millions of its citizens remain displaced in Congo and other countries.
Escape from these countries while under threat is often harrowing. As a human rights activist, Mbongi got on the wrong side of the Kabila regime for advocating for the rights of people mistreated by the police. In 2014, state security agents arrested him at his home and took him to a prison where inmates were routinely tortured and disappeared. One day, the prisoners were assembled before a presidential aide who began calling out names of people to come with him. Mbongi had heard a rumor that these were people the government had decided to release. “There was a guy whose name they called out twice and that person didn’t respond, so I jumped up and said I was that person,” he recalls. “Then I was like, OK, OK, I hope they aren’t taking people out to kill them.” Agents put him in a car, drove into the city, and left him by the side of the road.
Mbongi knew he would be a wanted man as soon as they realized their mistake. He hid out until someone was able to retrieve his passport and money, then went to the embassy of Liberia, a war-torn country few Congolese ever traveled to, attributes he hoped would make it unlikely that the embassy was being monitored by the security services. He applied for and received a tourist visa to Liberia, then paid bribes to get through security and onto a plane at Kinshasa’s airport. “At the airport, if things don’t go right, they will arrest you and the newspapers might write about it,” he said of his choice of escape route. “At the land borders, they might just kill you and throw you in the bush.”
He spent more than a year in Liberia – volunteering at a youth organization, regularly applying for extensions to his 30-day tourist visa, and looking for a way to get to a safer country. He eventually presented his case to U.S. consular officials, who issued him a visitor’s visa in early 2016. Then, not knowing what would happen when he got there, he boarded a plane to New York’s Kennedy airport with $200 in his pocket.
His seatmate, a Liberian resident in the U.S., put him up the first night. In the morning he took a Greyhound bus to North Carolina to connect with Congolese friends of friends living there. “I spent two months there before we made up our mind that the state of Maine is where immigrants have some possibilities,” he said. “In Maine there were already a number of Congolese people from similar situations, and most of them had a much harder experience than I did in getting here. There is general assistance and people who will guide you to a place to go and show you how to get to the shelter and how to contact ILAP and other resources.”
He took a bus to Portland in April 2016, and spent three weeks in the Oxford Street shelter – “they get you up at 6 a.m. and you wait out in the cold for two hours for the soup kitchen to open and then wait until 9:30 for the public library to open” – before landing a room at the YMCA, where he stayed for the better part of two years, until he received permission to work.
During that time, he volunteered at the YMCA and the Salvation Army, teaching English to fellow immigrants and helping them fill out paperwork. He said that while Donald Trump was president, many worried they might be sent home to imprisonment or death – and some headed to Canada. “Now Trump is not in power, but still there are people who are afraid,” he said. “They ask, ‘Is America going to be a safe place for me? Am I going to survive?’”
Like Mbongi, Prince Pombo Mafumba, who had been a teacher, escaped detention and fled Kinshasa. He went first to his home city of Matadi, a port 200 miles to the southwest, and then paid bribes to slip across the adjacent border with Angola. He would have been arrested several times on the bus to Luanda – he didn’t have an Angolan visa in his passport – if it weren’t for the interventions of a relatively wealthy Angolan man sitting next to him. This man put him up his first night in Luanda – a city of 2.5 million – and bought him food, as Mafumba had already run out of money. But Mafumba managed to contact a former university classmate in the city, who gave him $100 and got him a job hawking remote controls and other television accessories in one of the massive open-air markets. Over two years, he worked his way up to cutting hair in a salon – which helped him master Portuguese – and then drove a taxi.
Conditions in Luanda were deteriorating fast. A slump in oil prices sent the petroleum-producing economy into a tailspin. The trash-collecting companies in Luanda went bankrupt, mountains of garbage accumulated in the streets, followed by cholera and yellow fever outbreaks.
“Every morning a friend would die or a family would lose three people, and there were also people getting murdered all the time because everybody in Angola had a weapon,” he said. “There were bandits on motorbikes who would come to your place to get your money. It was so scary. And then I got sick.” He coughed up blood and thought he would die. He spent five hours at an overwhelmed hospital, waiting for help that never came and then went home to await his fate.
He survived, but decided it was time to leave. So he scraped together $1,500 to buy an Angolan passport and the series of fake documents that supported its issue. He paid bribes to evade visa controls at the airport, boarded a flight to Rio de Janeiro and, somewhere over the Atlantic, threw his fake passport in the lavatory trash. In Rio, he asked for asylum, declaring he had lost his DRC passport, and was granted leave to stay and work. He started a new life, with a job as a bellhop at a new hotel in Rio’s posh Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, marriage, a baby daughter and an application to become a permanent resident. But two years later, when the time came to submit his paperwork, there was a catch: He couldn’t provide a Brazilian visa. This meant he would have to wait another five years to reapply, years in which he couldn’t leave the country and he could still be denied. He decided he had to move on and set his sights on French-speaking Canada, his wife and 4-month-old in tow.
They flew to Rio Branco in the north of Brazil and then started the long overland journey that would end in Maine, 10 countries and 11,000 miles away. They lacked visas so they paid smugglers to get them across each border, then made their way to the next one, sometimes with transportation provided by local authorities eager to keep what had become a river of migrants moving northward rather than stopping.
They traveled across Peru, Ecuador and Colombia until they reached the end of the road – the Darién Gap, 60 miles of roadless, often uninhabited jungle wilderness, mountains and rivers that serves as a sort of DMZ between Colombia and Panama. Smugglers put them in an overloaded boat to transport them on the Pacific Ocean to a trailhead where they would have to pay another gang to lead them across the gap.
“There were a lot of people from many countries on the boats, and the ocean was really agitated and there were no lifejackets,” he said. “They took us to the shore in the middle of the night and just left us there. We couldn’t see anything, and then people with weapons showed up and said we had to pay them $100 per person or they would leave us there. We only had $50.” They begged to be taken anyway – and at the last minute, the smugglers relented and let them follow them into the jungle.
The perilous trek across the Darién Gap has become a major route over the past decade for migrants attracted by the lack of any official presence in the area and deterred from maritime smuggling routes by successful U.S. interdiction.
“You also don’t have resistance from the Latin American governments themselves, who almost never deport migrants from countries outside Latin America. They just give them an exit document,”said Caitlyn Yates, a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia who studies this migration route and spoke to the Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram via telephone from the Panamanian side of the gap.
In April, the U.S., Panama and Colombia announced they were launching a 60-day campaign to halt the Darién Gap crossings but did not share details as to how they would do so.
Last year saw the largest number yet of Central Africans making the crossing, Yates said, citing Panamanian government data: 1,271 Angolans and 610 people from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the first 11 months of 2022, compared with 479 and 315 in 2021, 239 and 28 in 2020, and 1,274 and 556 in 2019, the year before the pandemic struck.
But the large numbers don’t spell safety.
“People get injured or they run out of money,” said Yates. There are guerrilla groups there and lots of robberies – and for women migrants, sexual assault. Migrants are killed for not having the money to pay racketeering fees, or they dislocate shoulders or ankles, making it impossible to make the journey over rivers and mountains.”
It took Mafumba’s family seven days to cross the Darién Gap. They ran out of water on day three and food on day four, forcing them to drink from tropical rivers.
“This is the first time in my life I experienced what it could feel like to die from not eating,” he said.
They saw corpses on the trail and members of their own party drown while fording swift rivers. One family drowned in their sleep when a flash flood inundated their riverside camping site. Others who were too exhausted to continue were left behind in the bush. When the family emerged from the forest, they begged for food and money. It took two months to save enough to continue to Costa Rica.
They were arrested in Nicaragua, fought massive crowds crossing the Guatemala-Mexico border and begged on the streets of Monterrey, Mexico, until they had bus fare to Piedras Negras, on the border with Texas, where a passerby helped them find shelter while U.S. authorities processed their asylum request. Two weeks later they were in Texas. When customs agents asked where they wanted to go, they said Buffalo, N.Y., because it was near Canada. But after six months living and volunteering in a shelter there, Mafumba wasn’t sure when, if ever, they’d find permanent housing. A co-worker advised him to take his wife and daughter to Maine.
“I had a kid and I wanted to go somewhere to have my life,” Mafumba said.
In 2019, Mafumba’s family arrived in Portland. Approved to work, he found jobs teaching French in South Portland and Freeport schools. He worked at L.L. Bean and for Avesta Housing, Shaw’s and Freeport Community Services, where he helped coordinate aid and assistance for fellow Central Africans. His daughter is in kindergarten this year and his son, 2, is a native Mainer.
He’s no longer seeking to go to Canada, he said. He’s finally found his home.