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Somalis Make a New Home in New England

When Americans think of their land as a "melting pot" of ethnic and immigrant groups, it is usually the large metropolitan areas like New York and Los Angeles that they imagine. But the cultural landscapes of small cities and towns can also be changed radically by the influx of immigrants and refugees.

The City of Lewiston, in the southern part of the New England state of Maine is one example.

With its boxy clapboard houses, white steepled churches and abandoned 19th century textile mills, Lewiston looks like many old New England towns. But Lewiston has gained a new distinction. Since February 2001, this city of 35,000 residents has become home to almost 2,000 Somali immigrants and refugees.

The Somalis' ebony skin, flowing clothes of scarlet, blue and gold, and their Muslim faith contrast sharply with Lewiston's Yankee makeup, which, for as long as anyone can remember, has been overwhelmingly white, Christian and traditionally wary of outsiders.

"What happened here was not a planned event," says Phil Nadeau, Lewiston's Assistant City Administrator and a principal contact with the Somali community. "This just happened, and you commit yourself to making it work. And to this community's credit, we have done an extraordinary job in responding to the need… and embracing this population in a way that makes them feel like this is home."

Most Somalis, when they first came to America, settled in large metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Georgia, and San Diego, California. But Somali elders found urban life too threatening to their culture. Four years ago, after a nationwide search, they chose Lewiston as an alternative. They believed its small town atmosphere and pace of life was more like their communities back home. Word spread to Somalis across the country, and soon, a kind of pilgrimage to Maine began.

Still, Lewiston's social services were unprepared for the sheer number of new arrivals - some 60 per month at the peak. Mr. Nadeau says that, beyond the fact that most spoke only Arabic or tribal languages there was a whole range of issues that Lewiston had to confront. "There were some health issues that needed to be dealt with, (as well as) housing (and) life skills," he says. "We needed to find ways to be able to provide effective services and programming to them. And that work continues to this day."

Jen Babich of Catholic Charities Maine, a non-profit group, has been working with the city to meet the needs of the Somali community from the beginning, while making sure to respect the culture and languages of their homeland. It has not always been an easy job. "Initially, there was a lot of fear," she says. "Especially Somali women would be afraid to walk down the street. They'd get things thrown at them or spit at or people would yell comments. It was a tough time. I don't that's happening as much anymore."

Abdilah Sheikj is a Somali caseworker who has been working with Catholic Charities Maine to help new arrivals through their transition to Lewiston. "At first I welcome them to the United States and to Maine, and ask if everybody is okay," he says, "and then I bring them home to try be a part of the community. Maybe I get them help to learn English as a second language, or put the children in school and try [to help them] establish themselves so they can be a part of the community and live well."

In America, living well can be hard work. Alex Nicolaou, an employment developer, says that in addition to convincing prospective employers that Somalis can be friendly and trustworthy, Somalis must also learn the culture of the American workplace, from punctuality, to wearing appropriate clothes, to the speed with which they must do their work. "Whereas, in Somalia, the culture is a lot more relaxed, and people can take their time, here it's fast-paced -- sometimes too fast-paced for all of us!" he admits.

Some Lewistonians still resent the Somalis in their midst. They say they are taking the jobs locals should get, even though the newcomers have been willing to do the menial jobs native Mainers sometimes shun. A native trash collector named James disagrees with those critics. "They [the Somalis] do compete and I don't blame them. The people I met are pretty smart and they take advantage of all the opportunities that are out there," he says. "Maybe they do a little better than some Americans because they've got more to prove to everyone else."

Relaxing in a Somali eatery on Lewiston's main street, Qumar Bashir, 44, feels she has nothing to prove. After surviving a civil war in her home country, she fled with her husband and small children to Kenya, where she was brutalized by the police. She then left for the United States with her children. Despite the fact that she arrived knowing no one, she was confident she could make a new life.

"Thank God. It's wonderful here in Maine," she says. "I am working. I raise my kids. They are very fine. I go to school. One day, my son, who is 6 years old, came out and said 'This is my city and I'm going to defend it.' And the way he is pronouncing the words, I know I just knew he is happy here.… and we are here to stay!"