Trumbull woman named Refugee Mentor of the Year

Margaret LeMaire with a group of students in Zaire (present day Congo) in 1983.

Trumbull resident Margaret LeMaire has been named the 2018 Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants’ Refugee Mentor of the Year Award. But the award might as well be for lifetime achievement.

The institute’s CEO, Claudia Connor, said the Mentor Program was designed to allow volunteers to connect more directly with its clients and to have a more immediate and intimate impact on a refugee, or refugee family, as they resettle.

“The work of the mentor involves helping refugees navigate American customs, language services, workplace norms, and school systems so they can become self-sufficient contributing members of the community as soon as possible,” Connor said.

LeMaire has worked in Congo and with refugees and immigrants in the United States for over 30 years. She has logged more than 200 volunteer hours with CIRI since the beginning of 2018. During that time she has mentored two Congolese families. Her knowledge of the Swahili language has enabled her to help one young mother of six children navigate both the local school system and the American medical establishment as she delivered her seventh child.

LeMaire said she first became aware of the problems that refugees face in the 1970s, while she was still in high school.

LeMaire, with CIRI CEO Claudia Connor.

“The first wave of refugees from Vietnam were coming here after the fall of Saigon,” she said. Our church sponsored three young adults, and I became friends with them.”

Through her college years, LeMaire said she felt a calling to help those who were struggling to transition to a new country and culture. That was a feeling she herself would experience throughout her life as she spent time living in places like Rwanda, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Somalia and Ethiopia.

After graduating college, LeMaire spent a decade in Europe and Africa working as a teacher and administrator helping those who were displaced. In fact, while living in the Congo, the unrest at times grew so great that she lived with a packed bag near the door, in case she needed to flee the country.

“From our house, which was near the border, we could hear the rockets being fired from Uganda into Rwanda,” she said. She, her husband and their three children lived with a small bag packed near the door in case they needed to flee for the border at a moment’s notice.

“During the unrest, we strung tires along the road, so we would hear if there were soldiers coming,” she said. “We were ready to head for the Rwandan border if the unrest spread.”

After returning to the United States in 1993, LeMaire felt a bit of culture shock herself as the family settled in Chicago.

“There was some feeling of, ‘Who am I? What am I doing here?’” she said.

And once again, she found her niche working with those who needed help, this time those who had fled places like Armenia, Somalia, and Burundi. LeMaire said helping a Burundian family was especially rewarding as it gave her a chance to practice her Swahili, serving as a translator between the family and their doctor.

When LeMaire and her family moved to Trumbull in 2012, LeMaire soon found herself reconnected with Congolese culture due to the influx of immigrants from that country in the area. She said her experience in living abroad and knowing some of the struggles that others have faced is a huge source of empathy.

“It’s not like I’m some sort of great saint, I’ve just always felt a calling,” she said. “Wherever you are, you can always find someone who could use someone walking beside them.”

In her case, many of the connections she has made in her life have come through her involvement with local churches. Her religious belief, in part, has fueled her compassion over the decades, she said. Religion can divide, but it also can unite, she said.

“The church I belong to now could be considered evangelical, and a lot of people connect that with the heated anti-immigrant rhetoric,” she said. “But when you actually get to know people, you find that it’s not ‘us’ and ‘them.’ After all, Jesus was a refugee.”

The Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, founded in 1918, is a statewide nonprofit human services agency that helps people integrate into American life, rebuild their lives and achieve sustainable self-reliance, according to the group’s website. Between 2015-2018, CIRI resettled approximately 350 refugees in Bridgeport and Fairfield. In 2018, 139 refugees participated in CIRI’s workforce readiness program, and 83% of newly arriving refugees were employed 180 days after arrival. CIRI’s Survivor Services enrolled 50 survivors of torture for legal and social services and had 56 clients participate in psychosocial wellness groups.