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Somalian Immigrants in Maine - 2002-10-16

Finally, a population explosion that virtually no one predicted. It is transforming a corner of the world, that just 18 months ago, was an unknown blip on the map to the newcomers.

These young Africans are reading the Koran, a tradition that is centuries old in their homeland, Somalia. But this is not Somalia. This is Lewiston, Maine, a faded textile town in one of the least integrated states in America. Just a year and a half ago, there were no Somalis in this city of 36,000. Today, there are over 1,200.

Douglas Hodgkin a professor of political science at Bates College says Lewiston was surprised by the arrival of the Somalis.

"That a group from Africa would suddenly show up at our doorstep is really a surprise. It seems like a shot out of the blue."

Civil war devastated Somalia in the '90s, thousands of refugees fled to the United States. Many settled in the southern city of Atlanta Georgia. Crime was high and the housing was too expensive in Atlanta.

"Life in the big city is difficult. It's stressful. Access to services and employment is very difficult."

The Somalis found little crime, affordable housing and good schools says Phil Nadeau, Director of Human Services says.

“Where are the best opportunities for our kids? Where are the best schools? Where is the lowest crime? A lot of those things drive our decisions as individuals. They're no different."

The word spread quickly. Nimo Muhammad moved here six months ago with her husband and eight children looking for a better life.

“Atlanta is a big city. It's not good for kids. I have a big space now. I have a big apartment. It's cheaper than Atlanta."

But she still does’nt have a job. Few of the Somalis do. Three out of four apply to the city for welfare when they arrive. In fact, many admit Maine's generous benefits are part of what attracted them.

This has doubled Lewiston's welfare costs, forcing officials to raise property taxes to pay for their subsistence. Some long-time residents like Rene Bernier are not happy about it.

“When the Franco-Americans came here, they came and got jobs and worked in the mills and did not go to the city for all this general assistance. And that's what the community is in an uproar about, because they don't see them working."

For the Somalis, finding work has proven difficult. Many of those who arrive here have no job skills. Elizabeth Jonitis teaches English in Lewiston.

“Many Somali women have never been to school. They have never learned to read or write in any language."

Shanyalo Allis has a steady job making clothing labels. Sometimes, he says, he hears grumbling.

“Sometimes, you know, it's hard. Some people ask me, "why are you coming here? What are you doing here? Are you a refugee? Go back to your country."

But city officials and the immigrants themselves say these incidents are rare. Mostly, the Somalis have been welcomed.

“We've done an amazing job, as a community, in embracing the idea of becoming culturally diverse. But the real test will happen over time."

The real test is whether this small city will keep its arms open to the influx of immigrants, an influx no one saw coming. Brian Purchia VOA-TV