Riding the bus is a task that most people take for granted, but when Guy Mpoyi first arrived in America on June 30, 2013, navigating even a simple bus schedule was nearly impossible.

“When I came here, I struggled with how to find how transportation works here,” he said.

Mpoyi, 41, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, now lives in Westbrook and works for the sustainable food nonprofit Cultivating Community and another nonprofit, Maine Boys to Men, which addresses domestic violence issues. Both nonprofits are in Portland, which reminds Mpoyi of his initial struggles getting around the city. 

Many immigrants, including those from African countries, need help understanding everything from schedules to how to transfer from one line to another, and Mpoyi has created a new program to help. He calls it the Bus Ambassador program, which he has been running for about four weeks with the help of the Greater Portland Council of Governments. 

The free program allows a volunteer to serve as an “ambassador” to an immigrant family for two or more months, explaining to them how to get around greater Portland using the bus service. So far, Mpoyi has 10 ambassadors who speak as many as eight different languages — French, Swahili, Lingala, Tshiluba/Ciluba, Spanish and English — and hundreds  signed up to use the program. 

“We want people to be free to do things on their own,” he said.

Mpoyi said even bus etiquette, like getting on one person at a time, is a foreign concept to African nationals, who often come from countries where bus service is chaotic at best.

“Here, it’s very, very organized,” he said.

But the system isn’t always optimized for immigrant riders. According to its website, Greater Portland Metro has eight different routes in the area, which served just over 1 million riders in 2021. The service’s website does offer some material in multiple languages, but some is available only in English. 

Kat Violette, community engagement coordinator for GPCOG, said that can make it harder for new Mainers. 

“There’s a huge cultural difference with even just reading the bus schedules,” she said.

Even finding schedules can be problematic. Chelsea Hoskins, a resettlement coordinator for the City of Portland who is working to find housing for 1,400 asylum seekers in the area, said schedules may be posted online, but many new Mainers can’t access them while they are outside of their homes.

“Not everybody has a full cell phone (plan),” she said.

Hoskins said many new Mainers use the bus service to go from the grocery store to the city’s department of social services to medical care. Sometimes the trips require transferring from one bus line to another, which is complicated further by drivers who often only speak English.

Hoskins, who works and meets regularly with Greater Portland Metro, said the service is working to improve access to information and making it available in more languages.  

For now, Mpoyi’s program is getting attention. GPCOG recently gave him a community leadership award for his work, and Hoskins said the program is welcome among the new Mainers she and the city are working with.

“It’s a super wonderful tool, and it’s something we’d like to and intend to partner with,” she said.

Hoskins said she hopes to get schools and medical providers involved, and already she is working with Mpoyi to expand the program to include the service’s shuttle to Freeport and Yarmouth.

Mpoyi said he looks forward to keeping the program going. Already, he said, he has seen the value to bus riders.

“They don’t know where to find information. Information is key for everything,” he said.