‘Bus Ambassadors’ help new immigrants navigate southern Maine transit systems

Bertille Bouasa, center, explains a bus route in downtown Portland. Bouasa is a volunteer with the Bus Ambassadors program, today she’s helping a woman named Vitoria (left) get to the grocery store. (Ari Snider / Maine Public)

On a recent morning in downtown Portland, a woman named Vitoria was waiting at a bus stop on Congress Street.

Vitoria is an asylum-seeker from Angola, who arrived in Maine just a few weeks ago with her husband and two young children. On this day, she was trying to find her way to one of Portland’s African food markets.

Speaking in Portuguese, she said that being able to buy African groceries means she wouldn’t have to miss the food she used to eat in her home country.

The only problem – this was her first time taking the bus in Portland, and she didn’t how to get to the store.

That’s where a woman named Bertille Bouasa came in.

Bouasa is a volunteer with the Bus Ambassador program. At the bus stop, Bouasa spoke to Vitoria in French – one of their shared languages – and explained the different routes that serve this particular stop. To get to the market, she said Vitoria needed to take bus number 9B.

Bus Ambassador volunteer Mijou Nlemvo Nkongo rides the Portland METRO with Vitoria, an asylum seeker from Angola who recently arrived in Maine. Nkongo is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and says she too was confused by the transit system when she first arrived in Maine. (Ari Snider / Maine Public)

The Bus Ambassador program is a collaborative effort between the Greater Portland Council of Governments and transit authorities in Portland and South Portland. It began last year as an on-call service, pairing new immigrants with multilingual volunteers to help them navigate the public transportation system.

It’s the brainchild of Guy Mpoyi, who, on a sunny morning last month, was hopping onto a shuttle bus in Yarmouth along with a couple dozen asylum seekers – most from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – who live at a nearby motel.

This bus is part of a new route that launched in May, to help asylum seeking families access social services in Portland.

A group of asylum seekers, primarily from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, wait to board a bus on the side of Route 1 in Yarmouth. The new bus route connects the families to Portland, where they can access social services, African grocery stores, and medical facilities. (Ari Snider / Maine Public)

Mpoyi himself immigrated to the US in 2013 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He landed first in Seattle, and said he was so intimidated by the transit system that he tried to avoid it as much as possible, and relied on rides from friends who had cars.

“When I arrived,” he said, “It was really hard for me to understand how transportation works.”

Now, Mpoyi is the one fielding calls from new immigrants, who need help getting around in southern Maine.

Bus Ambassador founder Guy Mpoyi stands next to a bus stop on Congress St. in Portland. Mpoyi, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said he came up with the idea because he understands how challenging it can be for new immigrants to navigate an unfamiliar transit system – especially if they don’t speak English. (Ari Snider / Maine Public)

And he gets a lot of calls. Many newly-arrived asylum seekers in southern Maine rely on public transit to get to medical appointments, the grocery store, and social service agencies. But for most, Mpoyi said, it’s not an easy task.

“Most of them, they have a language barrier,” he said. “And then sometimes when you don’t know where to go, it’s crazy. It’s just complicated.”

Chelsea Hoskins, the refugee resettlement coordinator with the city of Portland, said the Bus Ambassador program has proven helpful in ironing out some of those complications.

“You might get off at a stop and you’re not really sure, are you going left or right to get to the hospital? Is it an inbound or outbound stop that I’m looking at here?” she said.

Hoskins said Bus Ambassador volunteers have also served as a bridge between local governments and recently arrived immigrants.

This spring, when Cumberland County launched the new shuttle bus from downtown Portland to the hotels in Freeport and Yarmouth, Hoskins said Bus Ambassadors were on hand to help.

“They were there from day one, breaking down trip planning, helping to translate those different schedules and trips,” she said.

Bus Ambassador founder Guy Mpoyi holds a sheet of paper explaining, in Portuguese, the schedule and route of a new shuttle bus service that connects three hotels in Freeport and Yarmouth to downtown Portland. Cumberland County launched the bus service in May to help asylum seeking families access social services in Portland. (Ari Snider / Maine Public)

But the program has by no means eliminated all the challenges that new immigrants face when trying to navigate their new home.

For example, Vitoria, the woman from Angola, did make it to the African food market, accompanied by a Bus Ambassador volunteer. But it turned out her General Assistance grocery voucher was actually for a different African food store, on the other side of town.

Vitoria took it in stride.

“Things like this,” she said in Portuguese, referring to the voucher mix-up, “It’s good that they happen. Because you get more experience, you see?”

And she didn’t go home empty handed, because Guy Mpoyi showed up and initiated the backup plan – he gave Vitoria a ride to the other market, in his car.

Vitoria, a recently-arrived immigrant from Angola, talks with Maxwell Chikuta, who owns L’Africana Market in Portland. Vitoria was able to stock up on Angolan staples including cassava flour, dried fish, and palm oil. She said entering Chikuta’s store made her feel like she was at home. (Ari Snider / Maine Public)

This story was originally published by Maine Public, a partner of the New England News Collaborative.