Martine Mathant, 46 years old, is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She came to United States via Johannesburg, South Africa, where she fled with her children to escape the violence raging in Congo. She had a good job as an assistant human resources manager, until life shifted in Johannesburg. Anger toward refugees seeking South African jobs was mounting into violent xenophobia. It is visibly difficult for Martine to speak about the details of her experience. Recounting a painful past can be retraumatizing. What is clear, is that Martine needed to go and she didn’t have much time to organize a plan.
A childhood friend from Congo now living in Washington D.C. urged Martine to join him. Martine left her children with her sister and flew to America, her friend’s phone number her only lifeline. She landed in Atlanta and tried to call her friend while she waited for her connecting flight to D.C., but his phone was off. “I was trying and trying and he didn’t pick up. I cried” A Kenyan pastor she met on the plane took her in while she attempted to contact her friend, but after three days, It was clear that he was off the radar. She was alone. The pastor bought her a Greyhound bus ticket and told her to go to Maine where she could find social assistance. When she finally arrived in Portland, she hitched a ride to a shelter and began to assemble a new life in a place much different than she had expected. She never reached her friend in Washington D.C. again. It is unsettling, but solving that mystery can’t be a priority now. Martine is focused on survival.
In only two years, Martine, who spoke only Swahili when she arrived, has adjusted to life in Maine. “Where you find yourself safe and welcome, that’s where you feel you are home.” She is outraged by the inequity, rape and violence suffered by women in Congo. Being recognized for her full human potential is her deepest desire. She recognizes that the cards are stacked against her as an African woman and a refugee. “To be considered despite my skin, despite my way of talking, I want people to see like I can do whatever a human being can do.” In Maine, she feels seen. Martine believes that without the assistance she received from the state, she would be on the street. Instead, she attended a program that teaches newcomers how to seek asylum, food, shelter and clothing. “They teach us everything about how to look for job after school. They are teaching us English and computer skills.” She is building the capacity to thrive.
Now Martine lives in Westbrook with Congolese roommates, and enjoys the comfort of speaking Swahili at home. Describing the aroma of her favorite traditional meal of fufu (a cornmeal porridge most closely compared to grits) with fish, she breaks into a rare smile. Although many of her memories of Congo are marred by tough events, it is still her place of origin. Martine places a bag on the table and removes swaths of African fabric called kitenge. Embellished with shimmering beads, the pieces form a top, a wrap skirt, and a headscarf. “ It’s the thing that I took to remind me of where I came from.” It was a gift from her sister-in-law who has since passed away. “This cloth is so attached to me, if I see it I see the love of my sister-in-law.” Martine says, “If I wear this, I feel that I am an African.” It is a prideful statement. Like countless other refugees, Martine came to Maine seeking nothing more than a safe reception. But through a combination of opportunity and her own steely perseverance, she was able to chase down a sense of dignity in the process.