Helping Refugees Decipher the Mysteries of Money


By Mae Toohey

In the basement of an elementary school in Lewiston, Maine, you’ll find a small cluttered classroom with concrete floors. The air is stale and warm; the only two small windows are cracked open as far as they’ll go. Long desks have been placed together to make a U shape in the center of the room. More than 30 people sit jam-packed before them—so many that they gather several chairs from other rooms. Stacks of paper, notebooks and folders are piled in front of them. They chatter in French, Portuguese, numerous African dialects and some English.  All are new to Maine and to the United States.

A tall, neatly dressed man stands at the front of the room, greeting people as they come in and fiddling with a computer hooked up to a small projector system. They address him as “teach.” His smile is constant, but not forced.

The man is Clement Yombe, program director for Community Financial Literacy, a Maine-based nonprofit that helps refugees, immigrants, asylees and asylum seekers navigate American finances. The program partners with Lewiston Adult Education and several other local organizations, and many of the clients come from Central Africa.

The classes are run simply. Yombe’s voice is loud, projecting throughout the classroom effortlessly, commanding attention on the subject at hand: the basic financial layout of the United States. “What is FDIC?” he quizzes the class, reviewing topics covered during last session. One student pipes up, recounting how he went to a local bank the previous week and requested to see their FDIC (Federal Department Insurance Corporation) certification. “Very good,” Yombe says, smiling.

Community Financial Literacy was founded eight years ago by Claude Rwaganje, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and had never had a bank account until he briefly spent time in Rwanda. “Countries where most of us came from had financial institutions that were really broken,” Rwaganje says. “You put your money in the bank, and the next day when you go to withdraw the money, the money’s not available.”

When Rwaganje first came to Portland, Maine, he began cosigning loans for people to help them purchase things, such as cars. He had been in the country for a while, working and saving money, which is why he was able to cosign. But his efforts to show kindness landed him a fat bill in the mail when one of the people he had cosigned for missed a payment. “I didn’t know the legal implications and the liability that comes with signing or cosigning a loan,” he says.

When he got his first job with benefits and the company handed him the 401(k) package, he had no idea what it was. And don’t even get him started talking about predatory lenders. “People lend to the immigrants, taking advantage of them,” he says. “It’s awful.”

Realizing that finances are a lot for immigrants to learn on their own, Rwaganje started Community Financial Literacy in 2008. It has helped over 2,000 refugees and other newcomers get a solid financial start. Jorge Macosso, an Angolan student, says that the class helps to build students’ futures and a good life in the United States.

CFL2Back in the classroom, Yombe emphasizes that being insured is a key to protecting money. “Why don’t we keep our money under our mattress? ‘Cause something could happen! There’s no insurance under there!” Yombe says, answering his own question.

“Remember when I talked about minimum balance? Remember that?” Yombe asks.

The class pipes up: “Yes, teach!”

The students are enthusiastic, chiming in, repeating after Yombe, unafraid to ask as many questions as they need to fully grasp concepts at hand.

“So they charge you extra when you have no money in account?” one woman in a brown paisley pashmina scarf asks, her face a bit puzzled.

Yombe elaborates on the different fees banks charge based on balances, stressing how important it is to ask questions, weigh pros and cons and “choose what is best for you!” When you don’t speak great English, people will take advantage of you, he emphasizes. “Bring the paperwork here,” Yombe says, “before you sign anything. Take your time.”

He also warns against scams that roll in from the Internet. “Don’t ever do that. You will cry,” he says. Even if something looks official, he warns, don’t give out personal information.

Some students remain skeptical. “What if the bank burns?” a student wonders aloud after Yombe introduces safety deposit boxes as a safe place to keep important documents.

“Your safe cannot catch on fire,” Yombe says.

“Wow!” the pupil responds.

CFLThe students are quick to jump to extremes: death, sickness, emergencies.

“That’s a very good question,” Yombe remarks after almost every one. He encourages class participation.

“Teach, please!” they call out to Yombe if they need something repeated or clarified. Yombe switches back and forth from French to English quickly, sometimes combining the two mid-sentence. He asks for help if someone needs something translated into Portuguese.

“My checking account, every time I go under a hundred dollars, I get a text,” Yombe says introducing a slew of techniques one can apply to keep up with banking. The class is fascinated.

As the two-hour-long session approaches its final minutes, some people sneak out early to pick up kids. Class ends with a discussion about expenses and budgeting. They brainstorm a list of expenses that often aren’t balanced: rent, electricity, phone, internet, nails, beer, cigarettes and more. Yombe challenges them: “How do you pay for it all?”

Yombe concludes the lesson leaving the question hanging in the air. He and his students will discuss the answer when they meet again.


Mae Toohey is a journalism student at Emerson College in Boston.

Emerson logo top

Emerson College Language

Photographs courtesy of Community Financial Literacy

seven mile miracle oahu
The Culture-ist