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Bridging Two Cultures

Marta Gonzalez-de-VegaThe City of Portland, in response to an influx in asylum seekers from the southern U.S. border, activated an emergency operations center and an emergency shelter at the Portland Expo in June. They also reached out to the community and local partners like Northern Light Mercy Hospital for assistance in welcoming the new arrivals and coordinating support services.

There was an outpouring of support from the public, and many community members donated time and resources to help provide shelter, housing, and basic necessities. From the first day that the shelter was open, Mercy worked to coordinate assistance. From serving food to supplying linens, to laundering the personal clothing of the new arrivals, employees from across Mercy volunteered their time to assist their new neighbors.

Marta Gonzalez de Vega, a member of the Northern Light Mercy Hospital Physical Therapy team, is representative of the great work done by so many at Mercy to support this community effort. Marta has served breakfast at the Expo every morning the temporary shelter has been open.

“I chose to work at Mercy because of its mission and values,” says Marta, who moved to Maine in 2018 from Spain and is fluent in several languages, including Portuguese, which is the native language of many of the asylum seekers. Marta’s language skills have helped bridge a divide between two cultures and have given families a new avenue to open up about their journeys as well as ask questions about their new home.

As a result of being a consistent, friendly face at the Expo, she heard numerous stories about the tragic and sometimes very dangerous path to Maine that many took with their loved ones. The personal accounts she heard have been very moving and have impacted Marta, especially those involving the many children still at the shelter, some of whom are very young. Two years ago, one of the families she spoke with flew from Angola to Central America, where they began their journey on foot to the United States. They walked through forests with almost nothing. They started their long trip with one child, giving birth to two more along the way.

Volunteering to help others is a part of Marta’s DNA. Before coming to the United States, she lived in Avila, Spain, which is the birthplace of Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582). While in Avila, Marta volunteered to help cloistered nuns, some of whom hadn’t been beyond the walls of their convent in more than 40 years. Priests and healthcare providers were the only people allowed into the convent, so she was often the nuns’ sole source of information about what was going on beyond the convent’s walls. And because the nuns have no access to the internet, the way she stays in touch with them is by sending letters through the mail. To this day, the nuns in Spain handwrite letters to her every month.

Marta, who was a physical therapist in Spain, is now working to obtain the credentials she needs to become a physical therapist at Mercy. While she knows the adjustment to a new culture is a major challenge for Portland’s asylum seekers, what she’s seen in the shelter has given her hope. Strangers from far off lands are now striking up relationships, and their children are playing together. As a new Mainer herself, she’s pleased to be able to help ease the transition of so many as they navigate their first few weeks in Maine.