Navigating life as a teenager can be difficult — there’s prom, drivers ed, preparing for college and managing relationships. But how about being a teen from a foreign country without parents or an adult guardian to guide you?
That’s where a small, informal network of caring adults comes in. Over the last 6 years, the network has helped unaccompanied minors who’ve arrived in Greater Portland legally on student visas after fleeing their own war torn countries. There are no official numbers, but the group estimates about 60 students have settled in the area.
Five years ago, Lucky Hollander got an email she’ll never forget.
“From a friend of mine who is a school social worker, talking about a young woman from Burundi who was here alone and was living with a distant relative — and the living situation wasn’t working out,” she says.
Hollander had recently retired from her career in child welfare and advocacy. She and her husband had raised three daughters, but their house was now pretty empty. And Hollander couldn’t get the young woman’s situation out of her mind.
So she and her husband talked it over and agreed to host her while she attended high school.
“We discovered there were quite a number of unaccompanied minors in Maine, for the same reason,” Hollander says. “So their parents — or somebody they knew if their parents had been killed — had gotten a student visa and had sent them over. But they weren’t always stable and in a place that they could stay.”
She also learned something else: that if unaccompanied minors found an adult to become their guardian before turning 18, they could then file for permanency — or what is known as a green card — under something called Special Immigrant Juvenile status. And this, says Hollander, is a big deal, because it lets minors apply for a social security number and work permit.
It also keeps them from getting trapped in the complicated asylum process, a process that can take many years. So the Hollanders applied to be the young woman’s guardian.
“What started out as just a bed on the third floor for a few months until she graduated ended up to be not only this amazing new member of our family, but also we learned a lot about all the unintended consequences of young people being here by themselves,” she says.
Not just difficulty finding stable housing, but getting to doctors’ and other appointments, transportation and even paying for personal items. While organizations like the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project were helping on the legal side of things, nobody was helping with all the rest.
“I just thought that was wrong,” Hollander says. “I just thought it was not fair.”
So her network, Hopeful Links, was born. The network has worked with 25 teenagers, mostly in Greater Portland. It’s deliberately informal, and Hollander runs it with a growing email list that reaches about 100 people.
“What we are asking is, if you can’t house, can you mentor? If you can’t mentor, can you pay for a cellphone every month? If you can’t do that, can you take them grocery shopping?” she says.
Most teenagers in the network have escaped countries experiencing civil war, human rights violations and instability, or places where wars have reignited — countries including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. The way it works is pretty simple.
“The school social worker or teen shelter call me and say, ‘We’ve got an unaccompanied minor. They’re in the shelter, and they really need a home and a guardian.’ So I activate my network,” she says.
And that’s how Jasmine, whose real name is not being used to protect her identity, found the network when she arrived in Portland two years ago, after she fled Burundi with a relative.
“I don’t think at that point I was trying to get to know the place whatsoever,” she says.
Jasmine says she moved from the worst situation she has ever experienced. Her parents had died when she was a baby, and she escaped Burundi to get away from an unsafe living situation. She thinks her relative had a connection to the established Burundian community in Portland.
“It was more of, ‘You’re out.’ You’re out. That’s it. I didn’t totally readjust, it was more of, how the hell did I get out? And what if, like, I don’t get to stay? What if something happens? But whatever it was, I didn’t mind the moving. The moving meant, ‘I’m here,’” she says.
“So, Lucky was trying to find a home for Jasmine and asked if I’d be her guardian,” says Nancy Markowitz, who became Jasmine’s mentor instead of guardian — and the only reason she isn’t the official guardian is because there isn’t extra room in her house.
Jasmine lives with another couple who are guardians. Jasmine and Markowitz have grown close — they complete each other’s sentences and debate current issues. And Markowitz is helping Jasmine plan for life after high school.
“Because I didn’t know anything about American colleges and any of that,” Jasmine says.
“We went to NYU and Bard — uh, Barnard, right,” she says, recalling college visits. “The Massachusetts was its own trip and then we did, like, New York and Washington — it was awesome. And we got a little cranky at some point, but was it was all cool.”
Jasmine hopes to major in international relations and maybe go to law school. She applied to 10 colleges, including American University, where she applied for early decision.
“And she got in,” Markowitz says.
However, she had to decline the acceptance, because she’s independent financially and the merit aid she was offered wasn’t enough. That’s a big hurdle.
Jasmine is not yet eligible to apply for federal student aid because she is still waiting on her green card — a process she and Markowitz say started 2 years ago.
“Every every step along the way took longer than we thought,” Markowitz says.
And Hollander says, after Trump’s election, she wondered whether the president might stop the flow of student visas, or that his anti-immigration stances might scare people from trying to secure them in the first place.
“We started wondering after the election what was going to happen, because we thought we might not ever see an unaccompanied minor ever again. Because temporary visas — whether they be visiting student visas or student visas — are completely at the discretion of the country they’re entering. So they have no reason to issue any more if they don’t want to,” she says.
But unaccompanied minors are still arriving, and the network welcomed three young men a month ago. Jasmine has friends in all three Portland high schools who are in the same boat.
In the meantime, Markowitz says unaccompanied minors and host families engage in what she calls “a balancing act.”
“Young people, of course, are grateful they have this safe space and this trusting thing, while at the same time they have this responsibility to the person who is maybe hosting them,” she says. “There is that sense of obligation that other young people don’t experience.”
Jasmine says she’s had to learn to set her own boundaries and advocate for herself. She has also become friends with other immigrants from Burundi.
The Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition says more than 1,000 refugees from Burundi live in greater Portland. But Jasmine says getting matched with Markowitz has changed everything.
“I have friends who didn’t have Nancy in their lives. And there’s a whole emotional burden that people don’t know about. So having someone to help you through all of that and support you all the way, and know that I have somebody who’s got my back — It’s more than anybody could ever ask for. I can never put a price on it,” she says.