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A collision of cultures leads to building bridges in Maine

Somali immigrants are finding a haven in a previously homogenous enclave of Maine.

Published March 13, 2005

[Times photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
Heather Lindkvist, an anthropologist at Bates College, has studied the local Somali migration to Lewiston, Maine. Click for photo gallery

LEWISTON, Maine - Just a few years ago, a civil war in the far-off African nation of Somalia was about the last thing on the minds of anyone in this nearly all-white New England town.

Then dark-skinned people began getting off the Greyhound bus - and staying.

As almost 1,400 Somali refugees poured in, the natives weren't quite sure what to make of them. Here were people who looked different, spoke little English and had little money. And expected this city of 35,000 to find them jobs and places to live.

"It slammed everybody against the wall," says Anne Kemper, the community's adult education coordinator.

But these Muslims from Africa, it turned out, shared many of Lewiston's small-town values. The Somalis wanted to raise their kids in a safe, quiet community where faith was important.

Four years later, pockets of wariness remain. But as both groups discovered, things as simple as potluck dinners and henna hand painting can go a long way toward bridging a vast cultural divide.

* * *

It could be any cluttered general store. But the inventory is hardly typical.

The video rack includes Islam: The Only Solution to World Peace and Muslims in America: Surviving After Sept. 11. Shelves are piled high with prayer rugs and head scarves. A sign over the soft-drink cooler reads:

"Allah is the best provider."

The owner, Muhamed Haidara, fled Somalia during the war, and eventually settled in Tennessee. But on a visit to Lewiston three years ago, he spotted a terrific business opportunity.

"I see this little town, all these Somalis and no store," he says.

Every year, the United States admits tens of thousands of refugees like Haidara - victims of racial, political or religious persecution who have left their homelands. Private agencies help to resettle them in larger cities, where they have ready access to jobs, social services and public transportation.

Starting in 1991, when their country plunged into lawlessness, Somali refugees began arriving in Nashville, Minneapolis and greater Atlanta. But in one of the more unusual chapters in America's rich history of immigration, hundreds of Somalis decided in 2001 to move on their own to a small city whose population was 97 percent white and almost totally Christian.

Even today, people in Lewiston struggle to understand what drew so many Somalis here.

"It is the only example we know of where there has been this kind of rapid relocation, and for no other reason than the fact they just thought the city was a nice place to live," says Phil Nadeau, assistant city administrator.

Portland, 35 miles down the road, had long been a resettlement area for Somalis. In early 2001, Maine's largest city was running out of public shelter space; Lewiston agreed to take a few Somali families. That simple act of hospitality would change the city forever.

By phone and Internet, word spread among the 40,000 Somali refugees nationwide that Lewiston was a friendly town.

"We left our country because of civil war and we did not bring millions of dollars in assets - the only asset we brought was our children," says Abdiaziz Ali, among scores who have migrated from the Atlanta area. "That is why we came from a fast-moving city to a small town - to protect our children from some bad influences - gangs, drugs, violence."

Another factor drew Somalis north: Many had encountered racial prejudice in the South even though they felt they had little in common with African-Americans.

"Because of their kinship to the tribe of Mohammed, Somalis don't see themselves as Africans, but more closely aligned to Mideasterners and Arabs," says Heather Lindkvist, an anthropologist at Lewiston's Bates College and an expert on Somali culture. "One of the elders told me, "We don't think about race as you do.' "

Lewiston was no stranger to immigration. Founded in 1795 on the banks of the Androscoggin River, the city had absorbed waves of Irish, then French Canadians who worked in the textile mills that once made this the industrial heart of New England. But the city was unprepared for the Somalis.

"When we first started, it was like the blind leading the blind," says Sue Charron, Lewiston's general assistance administrator. Her office, the local welfare bureau, was usually the Somalis' first stop.

Unable to communicate with many of the newcomers, the city hired an English-speaking Somali and added an AT&T language translation line for Somali callers. By June, City Hall was also getting calls from natives wondering about all the women in long skirts and bright scarves walking around downtown.

"They were asking who these people were, why they were moving here and my favorite - who authorized this?" Nadeau recalls. "People don't understand that once refugees are resettled, they can pick up and go wherever they want to."

Rumors swirled that the Somalis were getting free cars and preferential treatment in housing, neither of which was true. Before long, though, the city was spending 50 percent of its welfare budget on them.

In an open letter in October 2002, then-Mayor Larry Raymond asked the Somalis to stop coming because the city was running out of money to take care of them. Lewiston "is maxed out financially, physically and emotionally" by so many new arrivals, the mayor wrote.

Several hundred people marched in support of the Somalis. But the letter struck a nerve. Although Lewiston was finding new uses for its old mills, competition for unskilled jobs remained stiff. The Sept. 11 attacks had stirred anger toward Muslims. And Somalis were in the spotlight because of the movie Black Hawk Down, about 18 U.S. soldiers - including one from the Lewiston area - killed in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.

On Jan. 11, 2003, thousands of Somali supporters and a few dozen white supremacists held competing rallies. But life settled down, and the Somalis and the natives of Lewiston got back to learning about each other.

"The circumstances were pretty much in place for everything to go wrong - this was post-9/11 and a homogenous city had to deal with taking in black Muslims," says Pierrot Rugaba of Catholic Charities Maine, which now works closely with the city to resettle Somalis in Lewiston.

"The recipe for disaster was there, but everyone stepped up to the plate phenomenally."

"A very fragile state'

At Lewiston's Adult Learning Center, 12 Somali men and women hunch over their English-language textbooks.

"Who wants to go next?" the instructor asks.

Nimo Dubed, a tall, fine-boned woman in taupe head scarf and faux leopard coat, raises her hand. She reads aloud: "Someone at the Social Security Office will help you pick out the right form."

Twice a week, Dubed comes to the center to perfect her English. She started learning it as a refugee in Minneapolis, but found the city too expensive. The move to Lewiston has been everything she hoped for - the cost of living is cheaper, language classes are free and, like many Somalis, she works as a packer at L.L.Bean, Maine's renowned outdoor apparel retailer.

Perhaps more than any other place in Lewiston, the learning center has been a point of both friction and friendship between Somalis and locals, who often compete for the same blue-collar work.

Many natives "lost jobs where they were earning $15 an hour and they will never have jobs like that again," says Kemper, the adult-ed coordinator. "So when they come here, they are in a very fragile state and are looking around for targets to blame."

Tension built up in one computer class where Franco-Americans struggled to grasp technology that came more quickly to the Somalis. But by the end of the course, the two groups were working so well together that the Somali women ululated in approval as an American was called to the head of the class for special recognition.

Unable to produce the same high-pitched sound, the American women clapped their hands over their heads when it was a Somali's turn to be recognized.

The center has also spawned cultural exchanges. Somalis and Americans eagerly try each other's dishes at potluck suppers. And several Americans turned out for Somali-taught classes in tying head scarves and painting hands with lacey patterns in henna.

"Instead of having tattoos, I thought it would be very cool if young (American) girls had henna painting that disappeared," says Kemper, who had her own hands decorated for a wedding.

In Lewiston's regular schools, fights and name calling have given way to growing friendships between Somalis and Americans. Kids in lower grades play with each other; Somali boys excel on middle school basketball teams.

"I think we have been very sensitive to a new population of kids and we enjoy them," says Janice Plourde, director of curriculum for the Lewiston school system, which now has 340 Somali students among a total of 4,600. "It makes our community look different and it's probably about time. Kids can learn from other kids, and cultures can learn from other cultures."

In what Plourde calls a "bacon-and-egg kind of town," the schools' food staff quickly learned to label any menu items containing pork, which Muslims are forbidden to eat.

Somali students, meanwhile, puzzled over their first invitation to an ice skating party. There is no word for "skating" in their language, so the schools' newly hired Somali coordinator tortuously translated it as "a piece of wood on wheels that drives through frozen water."

The mingling among students worries some Somali parents.

Ali, who moved from Atlanta, won't let his teenage son wear the baggy, low-slung pants favored by American kids. He also restricts his son's Internet usage to e-mails and school research.

Guarding against what Ali considers negative influences "is a real difficulty sometimes," he concedes. American "girls want to give him their phone numbers but he can't have a girlfriend because dating is not allowed in Islamic law."

Somalis are even stricter when it comes to their female children. They don't take part in sports or gym classes because parents think the uniforms are too revealing. After school, the girls are expected to head home immediately and help their mothers.

Plourde, the curriculum chief, wonders how long Somalis, especially the younger ones, will be able to resist the relentless pull of Americanization.

"How many teenage kids want to go home and cook supper with their mothers? How many parents can tell their kids what to do after they graduate from high school?"

"Don't want any tension'

A few decades ago, downtown Lewiston looked on the verge of death. The mills were closed, and hundreds of textile jobs had moved down south or overseas, where labor and fuel costs were cheaper.

Now, Muhamed Haidara's general store is one of a handful of Somali businesses contributing to a downtown revival.

A few doors away is a Somali restaurant. It gets its meat from the A&R Halal Market, which sells beef and goat slaughtered in accord with Islamic law.

The heart of Somali life is the mosque, in a rundown building not far from several Catholic and Protestant churches.

Linda Chamberlain, a gemologist in the jewelry store across the street, is impressed by how many Somalis regularly pray there. "I think it's important that people have a faith path - that grounds a community," she says.

Some natives, though, see the mosque more as evidence that the newcomers have little interest in assimilating. Employees of the nearby Caveman tattoo parlor complain that the Somalis have done nothing to spruce up the place, and that they hog the area's limited parking when they show up by the dozens for Friday prayers.

"I not only work here, but live here and have to walk between the crowds," says employee Dan Young. "I don't want any tension, but being such a different culture, it's hard to make a real strong connection with them."

Other employees, who would not be quoted by name, are far harsher in their comments, charging the Somalis are sponging off the welfare system. Unemployment among Somalis indeed remains high - 25 percent or greater - and many receive some form of public assistance.

Some employers have been reluctant to hire Somali women, ostensibly out of concern that their head scarves and voluminous skirts could get caught in machinery. Others worry Somalis will take too many prayer breaks or won't understand instructions in English.

But Nadeau, the assistant city administrator who is Lewiston's point person with the Somalis, says they are eager to work. He faults the federal government for not allocating enough money to assure refugees get a firm toehold in American society.

"There are some refugee groups that just need more attention through no fault of their own," he says. "I don't want to adopt the existing immigration relocation strategy of waiting a few generations and it will be better. We know it works but God, it takes a long time."

Although the influx of Somalis had slowed dramatically even before Mayor Raymond's 2002 letter, there are signs it may be picking up again. In January, four more families arrived; last month, there were 14, with a total of 56 individuals.

At the general store, Lewiston's newest resident - another Somali - is poking through a stack of winter wear.

From relatives already here, 18-year-old Abdulrazak Hussein had heard that Lewiston was a fine place to live. Three days ago, he, his mother, brother and sisters boarded a Greyhound bus in Dallas for the 48-hour trip to Maine.

First thing tomorrow, they will be at City Hall to apply for food stamps and housing, and register the older kids in school. But now, with the outside temperature at 20 degrees and several feet of snow on the ground, Hussein has a more pressing need.

"How much?" he asks in Somali, holding up a thick pair of gloves.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified March 14, 2005, 12:00:24]

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