MagazineVolunteer Spotlight

volunteer Spotlight: Nicolau Sambo

Nicolau Sambo, an asylum seeker from Cabinda, volunteers by teaching English to other asylum seekers at the Salvation Army’s church in Portland, Maine.

In 2019, Nicolau Sambo, his wife Gilvania, and their three children arrived in Washington D.C., as asylum seekers from Cabinda, an African territory governed by Angola. They had left all their friends and possessions behind, but there was something that Nicolau had brought that would serve him well in America: his fluency in five languages, including English. In Cabinda, he had worked in the oil industry and as an ESL teacher, even starting five schools to teach English to Africans that wanted to work in oil like him.

From D.C., Nicolau and his family took a bus to a shelter in Portland, Maine, a city known as a destination for asylum seekers. It was there that he met Mary Irace, director of The Salvation Army Portland Corps Tools for Life program, an 11–week course that helps individuals progress towards goals such as independence and job placement. Irace was at the shelter to invite others to the Tools for Life’s English–language classes. Nicolau immediately said he would love to volunteer at the corps as a teacher himself.

At the Portland Corps, Irace introduced Nicolau to Mardochee Mbongi, an asylum seeker and Tools for Life participant that had gone from volunteer teacher to corps employee. To Irace’s surprise, the two men shared a connection going back decades. Twenty–one years ago, Mardochee had been one of Nicolau’s English students in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they both attended school. They remembered each other well, and their surprise reunion after years of political turmoil in their home countries brought tears to their eyes.

During the summer of 2019, Nicolau and Mardochee were part of the Tools for Life group that welcomed over 400 immigrants to Portland. The influx of people needing help resulted in Portland turning their Expo facility into a makeshift shelter, with food, sleeping cots, and supplies for immigrant families as well as the city’s homeless. Nicolau and his family assisted at the Expo center in between his responsibilities as a teacher and translator for the Portland Corps.

Tools for Life also collaborates with the ILAP (Immigrant Legal Advice Program) to provide weekly workshops helping asylum seekers fill out their paperwork and better understand their status. From these classes, Nicolau was able to prepare for his hearing, where he was granted asylum.

In August 2020, Nicolau was hired as an ESL teacher, working three days a week at The Salvation Army.

“The Salvation Army is my second home; it is where I started my active life in America, and this is where I want to be as it responds to my career path needs,” says Nicolau. “I love what I do, and I want to stick to doing what I do best.”

by Hugo Bravo


For more information on the Tools for Life program, contact The Salvation Army Northern New England Divisional Headquarters at (207) 774-6304 or nne.salvationarmy.org/nne/news/tools-for-life.

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