In June, a large group of families made their way to Portland, ME seeking asylum, traveling by bus from San Antonio, Texas. This was the last leg of a very long journey, taking them from their home countries of Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where they fled violence and oppression.
A New Home
On bread distribution days, thousands of sullen-faced men in overcoats shuffled along the sidewalks. Many collected their free bread and withdrew to their shanty towns—the cramped villages of tin and plywood shacks they called home. It was 1934 and New York City was fracturing under the weight of the Great Depression.
This was the world into which Carol was born. She was an only child in a Brooklyn home plagued by alcoholism. The forecast for her future was bleak. Her father, cognizant of this fact, made a decision. He traveled to a quiet town in Pennsylvania called Seltzer City. There, he left the two-year-old Carol with her maternal grandmother and went home to Puerto Rico. Carol never saw him again.
Seltzer City was one of those charming little towns that radiated “America.” Its blacktop streets were graced by a few grocery stores, an elementary school, and the neighborhood kids who played outside until curfew. When the local grocer would get shipments of Dubble Bubble gum, all of the local kids would line up for a free piece. “If the owner liked you, he might slip you two pieces,” recalls Carol. “And we had to save the foil for the war effort. That was a big thing during the war.” Even in Seltzer City, the Second World War loomed large. Carol remembers the tragedy of Roosevelt’s death and the town’s subsequent patriotic elation when the war ended.
Carol and I sit in one of the Root Cellar’s Portland offices. She smiles as she lets her mind wander back to Seltzer City and the warm memories of being raised by her grandmother and her mother’s siblings. Carol’s aunts and uncles all lived nearby, so her fifteen cousins became her brothers and sisters. “I just had a wonderful childhood. I loved it.”
Career aspirations eventually drew Carol back to New York. There, she lived with her mother and aunts. At work, she met a former Navy man named Dick. They fell in love and eventually married. When the time came to move out of New York and settle down, the couple felt torn between Pennsylvania and Maine. They reached a literal crossroads as they drove out on the highway. Carol says it was, “This way to Pennsylvania, this way to Maine. And Dick turned right to Maine.” In Scarborough, she and Dick bought a home and had children.
Over the years, Carol worked a number of administrative jobs, including a temporary position as Billy Graham’s office administrator. While she was quite involved in her own church, Carol says she felt God pulling her toward a small building on Washington Ave.
The Root Cellar
Carol initially feared coming to Munjoy Hill, which had a reputation for crime. One of The Root Cellar’s lead organizers, Pat Iriana, told her, “Carol, any car that parks in this area to go to The Root Cellar, they will not touch it.” Even then, the value of the organization was clear. “Pat organized suppers here, she set up dental services. We had clothing distribution right on the sidewalk.”
It seemed The Root Cellar interrupted the harsh realities of the outside world with moments of healing and hope. She recalls the staff joining hands on the sidewalk and singing “God Bless America” on September 11th. She even remembers the first refugee to arrive in Kennedy Park. She had come from Africa with her children, and Carol says the sentiment in the community was, “They’re all moving in now, they’re gonna take our jobs.” This distrust turned into harassment. “The woman would be outside on her porch, just watching her kids, and the neighborhood women would throw stones at her, they would call her names, they would punch her.”
She turned to The Root Cellar for help. Pat resolved to have the woman speak up at the next Ladies’ Breakfast. “She told the story of why she’s here. They were killing people [in her country]— killing Christians. Those neighborhood women got up and hugged her that day. And that was the end of that discrimination against her.” To this day, the refugee woman calls Carol “Mom” and her kids call her “Grandma.”
Carol reminisces about a few other stories that still hold a place in her heart. “I love these people.” From donating winter clothes to poor immigrants to helping Pat set up a fashion show for the neighborhood women, Carol seems to cherish the ability to make others feel comfortable and special.
She last revisited all of these memories when she went to see Pat before she passed away, only a few months ago. “Pat’s daughter invited us to see her two weeks before God took her home.” The doctor advised against having visitors, but Carol says the meeting gave her some closure on a wonderful friendship. “She remembered everything from long ago. We just laughed so much.”
We start to wrap up the interview. Dick is outside, waiting in the car for Carol. She leaves me with some final thoughts on The Root Cellar. “I just treasure the love, the laughter shared, the joy, blessings, and the friendships formed. We shed tears of sadness, and tears of happiness.”
*Chris Feely is a Cornell history grad who likes working with immigrants, listening to stories, and writing.
Starting this week, we are entering our 5th Super Summer in Lewiston! Over the next 7 weeks, over 70 kids will join us each day for an exciting day camp filled with community art activities, character building actives, and some really fun group learning activities like dance, sewing science basketball and so much more!
The City of Portland is currently welcoming hundreds of new asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. Over 150 are currently being housed at the Portland Expo, we are told that hundreds more are in route. This is a dynamic, changing scene - and there is much work to be done. Here are a few things you can do right now.