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Pedro Mussumba and John Lumbala, Shelley Melendez, Andrew Dumond, and Joshua Rand

New Americans Pedro Mussumba and John Lumbala got hired recently as corrections officers at York County Jail. Also pictured are hirees Shelley Melendez, Andrew Dumond, and Joshua Rand.

Credit: York County Jail

By Lee Burnett, Submissions Editor

Sanford’s asylum-seekers are starting to get jobs, a personal milestone for them and a lessening of the financial burden on state and local governments. One of the lucky ones is Abel Nimi, an engineer in Angola, who is in the final stages of getting hired as a corrections officer at York County Jail in Alfred.

“I am feeling very excited and very proud,” said Nimi. “If I compare myself with many other (immigrants), many spend four or five or six years without getting a job.” Nimi once had a well-paying job in the oil and gas industry. His starting pay at the jail is $22 per hour. “I am happy to do something else. In our life, we must learn how to face other career opportunities and paths,” he said. “We’ll be dealing with human beings. I like that. In my life, I have learned if you help others, you help yourself.”

Sanford’s population of immigrants, mostly from Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo, has swelled to 240 since they began arriving last spring, according to Rachel Phipps, Assistant Director of Economic Opportunity at York County Community Action Corporation. By law, asylum seekers must wait six months before they are eligible to seek jobs. To date, ten asylum seekers have obtained jobs, according to Heidi Barker, who volunteers as an all-purpose job coach, mentor and driver. “There is a lot going on … I’ve been going to the Career Center back and forth, back and forth, applying for jobs, writing resumes, checking Maine JobLink. Between Career Center and Adult Ed, we’re doing the best we can.”

Most of the jobs are as warehouse laborers, shelf stockers, boat unloaders, etc., but a few retail jobs involving interaction with the public require better English skills. “The biggest obstacle is finding a company willing to take a chance,” said Barker. “Just like finding apartments, this is all new to all of us.”

The York County Jail has been especially proactive in hiring new Americans, as has the entire corrections field in Maine, according to Lt. Mike Perry, Director of Recruiting and Training at the jail. “Hiring new Americans is a goal,” said Perry. “There’s a large pool of them. We’ve created a process for recruiting.”

The hiring is going to help the jail reduce chronic understaffing, where overtime shifts have been a way of life for years. “We could fill 20 more jobs,” said Perry. “People here work 50, 60, sometimes 72 hours a week.” Insufficient English-language skill is the biggest obstacle to hiring more asylum seekers, said Perry. “English proficiency is essential because one hundred percent of the job is communicating with each other and with [inmates],” he said.

An example of the jail’s proactive approach is allowing Nimi to work a flexible schedule. Nimi volunteers as an English-language instructor, holding two-hour classes daily at North Parish Congregational Church. He’ll continue teaching the class while employed at the jail. “They are so accommodating,” said Barker. “Mike (Perry) has been amazing. He’s an absolute motivator.” In his new corrections job, Nimi will help recruit other new Americans and help them with English skills so they can transition from custodial jobs to corrections officers.

Another recent hire is Sofia Ngudimbuta, who has been working as a team associate at the Sanford Walmart since December. Her duties – changing prices, organizing shelves and checking for expired items in the grocery aisles – are familiar to her. When she lived in Angola, she worked in supermarkets and warehouses.

She has no car, so she relies on York County Community Action buses to get to and from work, but she says she’s pleased with the job. “Walmart is helping me a lot with my English language. The bosses I met there are very good for me.” On the job, she says, “I feel comfortable.”

Gail Burnett contributed to this article.

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