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Updated: August 8, 2022 Women to Watch

Women to Watch: Mufalo Chitam, immigrant advocacy leader, raises up those around her

Photo / Tim Greenway Mufalo Chitam is the executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which oversees 90 organizations.

Mufalo Chitam is the executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which oversees 90 partner organizations across the state. She was nominated by Adilah Muhammad, executive director of the Third Place, as a “strong statewide leader.”

When the Zambia-born Chitam arrived in Portland in 2000, there was an informal network to help immigrants. Today, she has helped create a system to help place immigrants in hotels or other housing, to find jobs and work out language training and arrangements for school-aged children.

Mainebiz: What’s a typical day like for you?

Mufalo Chitam: It’s a little hard to have a typical day. In the world of remote working, typically I have at least two meetings every other hour. We’ll also respond to the ‘right now,’ as we’re having high numbers of arriving families that are being placed in different hotels. So for part of the day, we’re doing one or two site visits. So my days have a lot of planned, proactive events, but that is usually taken over by reactive work based on what’s happening to the community.

MB: Is there anyone who has most influenced the way that you do your work?

MC: I come from a huge family. There’s 10 of us, although two are deceased: five girls and five boys in our family. My father was the youngest of three children, but he was basically the leader of his family. It wasn’t just financially; he was just inspirational, he taught us how to value human life and value at a very tender age. That is one of the values that I live by: humanity and service. He never had a lot, but was able to use what he had not only to take care of his family, but also to take care of his community. He is where I draw my inspiration.

MB: You immigrated to the U.S. from Zambia two decades ago. How has the treatment of immigrants in Maine changed since then?

MC: My husband won the diversity lottery for green cards, and we came — I believe on Oct. 5, 2000 — to Portland. There was a gentleman who we had met in Zambia on a couple of occasions who picked us up way late at night, close to midnight, from the airport. My daughter at the time was 3 years old, so the guy says, ‘I’m single, and you guys have a toddler, so I’m basically giving you my house, which now becomes like your house with everything in it.’

I tell this story all the time, because back then it was painful. And in one night, we had a home, we had everything, and food, and he just moved out. And he introduced us to someone originally from the Congo … [and] within three days, my husband had a full-time job with benefits. We came with summer clothes, so he took us to get weatherized. Someone else came to help us with Social Security, somebody else came and took us to enroll in childcare. And it was just community members. And the next time we heard somebody had arrived, we helped with the collaboration.

MB: How does your organization fit into the network?

MC: We didn’t have organizations like I’m running with almost 90 partner organizations [in 2000]. They were just communities helping each other. Fast forward, we advocated for the creation of organizations to create employment for people to do this work. But we have to help the system be able to look at some of that work and create systems and policies to address integration, to address resettlement. So it’s definitely day and night from what we had in 2000 and what we have now.

MB: How has Portland’s housing shortage affected the ability to resettle immigrants?

MC: Migration of people is not new in our history of the United States, or even in general. People are always moving, and we can read and look back in history. What is always different is how the people at the time responded to that. So as we have seen, people move to Maine — a state that’s very white, a state that’s very cold. A state that doesn’t favor these populations based on where they’ve come from, based on how they have grown up, their environment, the weather, the food, everything.

But we still see arrivals, people coming. But why they have been coming is because they have a community. We came because we knew someone from our country. They come because there are people who are from their country, who speak their language, or are from their culture.

Now with gentrification, all these developments going up … we’ve seen how Maine has become unaffordable. But even with that, we still see people still coming. So it calls for an administration at the municipal level, or at the state level, to respond to that. You can’t have the same number of affordable housing for a population that has quadrupled. That’s impossible, you know? So we have to start thinking of town planning, state planning, as it relates to where people can settle, but also whether they can afford it. Their quality of life gets compromised if we’re stuck with the same systems, the same number of affordable housing [units].

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