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Portland, Maine, is New Refugee Haven - 2002-01-13

Large American cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, attract most of the immigrants and political refugees in this country. But in the past decade or two, some smaller cities have seen a steady growth of the foreign-born population. The coastal city of Portland, in the north-eastern state of Maine, is one of them.

During the 1990s, Maine admitted more than 7,000 immigrants and resettled more than 4,000 refugees. Most of them live in and around Maine's largest city, Portland.

A group of Somali men have gathered in front of "Heelaal", Portland's first Somali cafe and delicatessen shop. Along with sandwiches and spaghetti, the cafe serves lamb, rice and spicy appetizers called "samboosas." It also sells African spices, meat cuts, rice and other ingredients for traditional Somali dishes. During the day, Somali women come here to shop and in the evening Somali men come to eat and socialize. Twenty-one-year-old Hassan came to Maine two years ago. He says he is getting used to life in America.

"Actually not too bad. Actually life is going on good. Everything is good. I am here. I got a job. I do everything I need. So, actually, my job is what they call mail handler," said Hassan.

Abdi Ahmed came seven years ago. He used to work for a trucking company, but now drives his own truck for a living. "I enjoy this life," he said. "This is a good life. The country I from was in war, fighting tribal wars, fighting each other, killing each other..."

Like most refugees here, Hassan and Abdi Ahmed have come with the aid of Portland's Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Services. The non-profit organization, which is part of a federal program for refugees, is the primary resettlement agency in the State of Maine. Director Matthew Ward says it processes 250 refugees per year and helps them for up to a full year.

"First area is what is called reception that is you meet them upon arrival, that is generally in the case of Portland, Maine, at the airport. Here in Portland we have a special feature, which we call Welcome House. We have a six-unit apartment building where people move initially so they can sort of 'decompress' so the family can be together in a family setting, rather than in a hotel or a motel which tends to be rather impersonal."

Mr. Ward says the resettlement agency also helps refugees obtain official documents such as social security cards and driver's licenses. It ensures that refugees have access to family health care. It enrolls children in schools and helps adults find jobs.

"We do an assessment of every adult refugee to determine what skills they have, how they can be employed, what the obstacles may be to [their] employment because the primary goal of all resettlement programs is to move people as quickly as possible to economic self-sufficiency. And in social service we would say 'the personal empowerment'."

A number of charity organizations are joining the effort. Schyla St. Laurent is a midwife preparing to start volunteer work for an organization called Hope that reaches out to needy people, especially women from different cultures.

"I have just begun to realize the need in this neighborhood for someone to come in and to speak to women about choices in child-birth and to safely bring them through that process," she said. "As home-birth midwife, I love the idea of helping women for whom possibly home birth is a norm. They come to a new country and perhaps I could assist them."

Although the number of immigrants in Portland has grown in recent years, people of a different color and ethnic background are still quite conspicuous. Abdi Ahmed says that's one of the reasons he frequents the new Somali cafe, even though most of the other clients come from Somali clans hostile to his.

"Not really friends, I don't have any friends, [I am] by myself. I just come here sometimes in this restaurant and I eat in this restaurant and I sit here because this was my life - and I grew up Somalian - to inter-mingle, to talk with them. Still I come here and I eat and I talk with them."

In recent years, more than 3,000 refugees have settled in Portland, Maine. They include people from the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia, Kurdish refugees from Iran and Afghanistan, and African refugees from Somalia, Uganda, Sudan and Rwanda. Matthew Ward of the Catholic Charities Resettlement Services says many refugees live downtown because they could buy relatively inexpensive houses in the older parts of the city close to the waterfront.

"In fact, in the last 15 years, Portland has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance, a sort of rebirth of its downtown area and lot of that can be credited to immigrants families, not just refugees, but to immigrant families who have come and bought up houses that nobody else wanted," said Mr. Ward. "Again, many, many, many immigrants and certainly many refugees bring skills like carpentry, plumbing, electrical work. They can do the stuff themselves, you know, so they are not afraid to buy a house that is a little dilapidated and make it look good."

A number of refugees come to Maine in a so-called "second wave." After being resettled in Florida, California or some other part of the United States, they move on in search of a better living. Many find that in Maine. But some leave the far northeastern state because of the cold winters, especially refugees from southeast Asia who are used to warmer climates. Mr. Ward says the people of Portland like to think that they make up for the cold weather with the warmth in their hearts for the newcomers.