How A Teenage Asylum-Seeker From South Africa Became A Social Justice Advocate In Maine

By Lynn Shattuck

At first, members of the Southern Maine Community College chapter of SPLC on Campus were worried they had ordered too much food.

The group was hosting one of its first major events, a screening of Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated film 13th. The 2016 documentary, which argues that slavery continues in America through the mass incarceration of African Americans, was not exactly light viewing. But by the time the film began, some 30 people had gathered to watch it. Surplus pizza, it turned out, was not going to be an issue.

After the screening, SPLC on Campus members led a discussion. The conversation was intense, said the group’s founder, Dorcas Ngaliema — but it showed that the SPLC group was a necessary addition to the seaside campus of 6,000 students.

“People talked about a lot of things they didn’t know,” Ngaliema said. “People were kind of shocked … it was uncomfortable to see that African Americans were being systematically targeted.”

When it comes to social justice, shock is a step in the right direction, Ngaliema said. “I really advocate for people being uncomfortable because that’s the only way we can learn.”

As an asylum-seeker, Ngaliema knows a lot about discomfort.

Two and a half years ago, when she was 17, Ngaliema thought her family was leaving their home in Cape Town, South Africa, for a vacation. But two weeks before the trip, her parents broke the news to her and her younger sister: the family wasn’t taking a vacation. They were relocating to Portland, Maine.

This wasn’t the first time the family had emigrated. When Ngaliema was just nine months old, her parents fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo to escape civil war. This time, concerned about a rise in xenophobic attacks across South Africa, her parents decided it was time to move farther away.

“A lot of people didn’t feel safe anymore,” Ngaliema said. In addition to her parents’ concerns about safety, they also wanted their daughters to have access to better education.

The move to America changed everything.   

“It was really hard,” Ngaliema, now 19, said of the move. “I came from a very comfortable life back home — a lot more comfortable than being here. My parents had to start over again.”

When the family first arrived, the shelter they’d planned to stay at didn’t have room for them, so they had to stay in a motel until they found an apartment a few months later. In South Africa, Ngaliema’s father had worked for Shell Oil Company, and her mother ran a daycare center. Now, to make ends meet, he works multiple jobs in the social services field, while she works as a hotel housekeeper.

Despite the challenges of building a life in a new country, Ngaliema believes she has had an easier immigrant experience than many of her classmates at Portland High School, a hub of diversity in a mostly white state, where students hail from more than 40 countries. She considers herself lucky because she arrived in the United States already speaking English, which meant she could enroll in mainstream classes.

Still, the experience of moving to a new country sparked a keen interest in social justice.

“When I was in South Africa, all my problems were my problems and I thought the world revolved around me,” she said. “When I moved, I realized I was really small… I learned more about American history, about racism.”  

Ngaliema’s move to Maine also occurred shortly after the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. She followed the story via social media, and America’s struggle with racism began coming into focus. “I took it upon myself to educate myself about the injustices happening in this country,” she said. She went on to lead the civil rights club at her high school during her senior year.

After graduating from high school, Ngaliema began attending Southern Maine Community College. A political science major, she brought her passion for social justice with her. So when she heard a professor speak about the Southern Poverty Law Center, it seemed like a natural fit.

“We needed a space, especially in this climate, where we could have conversations and listen, even if it was uncomfortable,” she said, adding that relating face-to-face is especially important in an era when many people express their opinions from the safety of their computers or mobile devices. “All you have online is capital letters and exclamations… It’s just not good for anybody. In person I can see [people’s] body language, hear their tone.”

The value of face-to-face dialogue was evident in the discussion of 13th. Some attendees had initially resisted the film’s premise but gradually came to see others’ points of view. And some gained a greater understanding of the issue’s complexity. While the audience may not have come to a consensus, thanks to Ngaliema and her SPLC on Campus group, they all emerged with their minds open a little wider.


Lynn Shattuck grew up in an Alaskan rainforest but now lives in the ‘burbs of Maine. She blogs about parenting, grief, body image and more. Her writing has recently appeared in Headspace; elephant journal; and Purple Clover. Follow her on Twitter @LightWillFindU

This 500 Pens’ article was produced in partnership with the SPLC.  Cover image of Dorcas Ngaliema by Lynn Shattuck.  

Copyright © 500 Pens. July 2017.