Understanding Each Other

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Photo by Scott Mohler

Claudette Ndayininahaze, co-founder of In Her Presence

It all started with a yoga class.

Women’s Empowerment Yoga, created in 2015 by Claudette Ndayininahaze, was designed specifically for women from greater Portland’s immigrant communities. The idea was to offer yoga as a way for women to feel strong and learn new ways to cope with stress. “It is a chance to get to know each other,” Ndayininahaze says. “Share in our experiences, build our community, learn something new and grow together.” But during the yoga class, Ndayininahaze quickly realized how the need for language transcended everything else. “New Mainers were coming to me, about how they were really struggling with the language,” she says. “I saw the need. Because English is the second language, it’s a daily struggle.”

Two years ago, Ndayininahaze co-founded In Her Presence, a Portland-based organization led by and for immigrant women. She and her co-founder, Abusana Micky Bondo, understand how critical it is for immigrant women who live in Maine to acquire English language skills. The women’s-only English language access group meets Saturday mornings at a Portland church, and more than 40 women are served by the free classes. “There are women from Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, Angola, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Iraq, Senegal, Russia and the United States,” says Ndayininahaze. Five different classes—all taught by volunteers—are offered based on the needs of participants. One is geared to women who don’t speak any English, another for those who read and write but want to improve speaking skills, and another offers one-on-one lessons. Because of the popularity of the classes, there is a waiting list. Another challenge, adds Ndayininahaze, is that child care is not provided during class times—which means potential students get turned away. “This is our biggest issue,” she says. “We don’t have space to offer child care for women with children.” The goal is to find a space with room to have on-site child care.

Originally from Burundi, Ndayininahaze moved with her family to Maine in 2011. Moving to the U.S. can create shifts in family structures, she says. “Language is critical for all new Mainers, women and men. But for me, the woman is the pilot of the family. If women are growing, the children and husband can also grow. If the woman does not have time to learn the language, it’s hard on the whole family. Women can integrate the system, I think.”

Adapting to a new culture and system can put strain on families. “Arriving here, sometimes it’s so hard for men to integrate the system because of what they are used to back home. They don’t work in the kitchen, they don’t cook—it’s hard for them in those ways. For a woman to take on everything, she needs to be empowered, to take leadership, so she can know how to navigate and connect with resources and come back for her family. This was our idea for starting In Her Presence, and I feel that women need to be empowered and get the voice.”  

It’s also critical for new Mainers and the receiving community to “create a platform for understanding each other,” she says. “You keep the positive values of your culture and the receiving community needs to do the same. Each community can value the contributions from the other side.”  Even within her language group, she says, there are different cultures and backgrounds. “We are all not the same. We learn from each other first, and then move to the next step. It’s not easy, it’s a process.”

Recently, In Her Presence received a grant from Maine Initiatives to advance  community-based racial justice and racial equity work with women. “I feel empowered by the work we are doing and hope In Her Presence can grow,” Ndayininahaze says. This year, in addition to language classes, the group is offering a class about health education and reproduction, taught by a team of volunteer nurses and doctors. Another course will focus on professional development.  

“We need to stay strong and work together as Maine has been on immigration issues,” she says. “We need to build a strong base of collaboration so we can all succeed.”

For more info about In Her Presence visit: inherpresence.wixsite.com/inherpresence.

Caroline Losneck is a Maine-based documentarian, radio producer, and experimental installation artist. Her work is featured on Maine Public Radio, NPR, Marketplace and WMPG Community Radio. Her documentary film work has appeared in the New York Times and at film festivals around the country.

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