Claudette Ndayininahaze, ChIME’s 2019 Planetary Chaplain Award recipient, grew up speaking Kirundi, French, Kinyarwanda and English in the tiny landlocked country of Burundi, which has experienced steady conflict. Before leaving Burundi, Claudette earned a B.A. in Administration and Management and worked as the National Sales Manager for Heineken, the largest beverage company in Burundi. She also served as President of the Burundi Girl Scouts Association. Both jobs allowed Claudette to travel around the rural country supporting economic development and the well-being of women and girls.
“Eventually, I was obliged to leave my country,” Claudette described in a recent interview. She arrived in Maine in snowy, cold January in 2011 and lived at the Florence House shelter for women. Despite Claudette’s former leadership roles, after obtaining a work permit the only employment she could initially find in Portland was in Maine Medical Center’s housekeeping department. After five months, she was promoted to a supervisory position there. Later, with the “vital support” of a mentor at First Parish Unitarian-Universalist Church in Portland, she was able to move to a job working at the front desk of The Opportunity Alliance. Seven months after her arrival, her husband Arthemon and children Olga, Rolande, and Charles, joined her to start a new life in Maine. Claudette is now the Cultural Broker at TOA, assisting other immigrant and refugee clients through the maze of available support for their transition into Maine life. She also serves on the boards of many different community organizations.
With her business acumen and sensitivity about the struggles refugee resettlement entails, Claudette felt drawn to do more. “Someone needs to stand up for other people,” she said, explaining how she co-founded the non-profit organization In Her Presence (IHP) with her friend Abusana Micky Bondo, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Reaching beyond the growing community of Burundian refugees, the two offered a yoga class for twelve New Mainer women at the Parkside Neighborhood Center in the spring of 2015. A women’s group in Yarmouth donated yoga mats and other yoga props. It soon became clear the language barrier was the greatest challenge for New Mainer women. The introduction of a weekly conversational English group soon followed. Four years later, IHP now offers weekly contextual English language classes to more than 100 women who have made the Portland area their home. The language is taught contextually using topics such as health or navigating American culture. Most importantly, the group is a safe space for women to support and encourage one another and offers them the connection and community they need to grow and thrive here in Maine.
Child care is also offered to 47 children as participants from 16 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia come together in rented classroom space at the University of Southern Maine or Portland Public Library. Elder women have their own group that focuses on their specific needs. IHP now boasts a network of more than 46 volunteers.
As a leader in the Portland-area immigrant community, Claudette encourages individuals and communities to help themselves, but she has never lost sight of the importance of compassion and gratitude. “We are women supporting one another,” Claudette proudly states. “We are helping rebuild the relationships, trust and safety that all human beings need. When you have these values, you can do anything.”
Learn more about Claudette’s amazing work in the community - register for OMcoming 2019!