At least 100 of the asylum seekers staying in Portland, Maine’s Expo Center got to join in on July Fourth festivities with a special picnic Thursday.
Amy Regan Gallant, of South Portland, organized the event, which was held at Cape Elizabeth’s Fort Williams Park near Portland Head Light.
Days earlier, Gallant posted about her idea to have the picnic on Facebook and says she was surprised by the generosity that followed.
By Independence Day, that post had encouraged people to donate $1,800 and lots of ice cream, fruit and other supplies for the picnic.
Two hundred volunteers signed up to help with the event.
Gallant also called the Town of Cape Elizabeth, which donated the Fort Williams picnic shelter for free. A local bus company offered discounted coach rentals to get the asylum seekers from Portland to the park.
“I, a Mainer who loves this beautiful space, welcome you, a new neighbor to come here and enjoy it with me,” Gallant said.
Around 1 p.m. Thursday, the first coach bus holding 50 asylum seekers left the Portland Expo.
On it were a couple, only identified as Nanu and Daddy, who traveled for four months from the Democratic Republic of Congo with their children and arrived in Portland just over a week ago.
Speaking through Dorcas Thete, an interpreter and picnic volunteer, the couple explained they weren’t sure exactly where they were headed when they boarded the bus.
Volunteers at the shelter showed the asylum seekers pictures of Fort Williams Park to try to explain what would happen, but it wasn’t until they arrived that many had a full grasp of what they would be doing.
When they did arrive at the shelter, volunteers who had given time on the holiday to lug freezers up the hill to the picnic area and hang up posters guiding crowds around were visibly moved.
“It’s beautiful, it makes me proud to be a Mainer,” said Bob Leger.
As for the asylum seekers themselves, a large number of them said thank you in various languages to the volunteers.
“Being in the Expo’s difficult but they can’t wait to have a place to call home for themselves,” Thete said of Nanu and Daddy.
The City of Portland is still working with surrounding communities to move the asylum seekers out of the emergency shelter at the exposition center and into more permanent housing.