Didn’t come to America to get GA

In 1994, civil war broke out in my homeland, Rwanda. Like many others, I was routinely tortured and feared for my safety and my life. My only option was to escape the political insecurity and ethnic conflict that consumed my home country.

I came to Maine in 2007, with a bachelor’s degree and five years of experience as a consultant for the nonprofit Helpage Rwanda. Speaking no English and having no work authorization proved to be stumbling blocks.

I had to rely on General Assistance for a year, until I could legally get a work permit and look for jobs. As soon as I could, I found work in a meat packing plant and providing care for people with disabilities.

Within a few years, I became fluent in English. I earned a masters degree in conflict resolution and mediation and began working at a social service agency, where I work to help others escape poverty, homelessness and hunger.

Refugees are a diverse group, with many different skills, levels of education and cultural backgrounds. Those seeking asylum come here because they fear for their lives, not because they want a handout. I didn’t cross the ocean to get General Assistance. I came for a new life, for equal protection under the law, and a chance to contribute to society.

For some, this issue may be political, but for people like me, it’s a matter of survival. We must preserve General Assistance for people who temporarily need it.

Tony Bikamba