The Coastal Packet: Maine: A different Somali story

Tuesday, November 29

Maine: A different Somali story

I first realized something different about Maine when I was in a Washington DC cab driven by a Somali. He asked me where I lived and I told him Maine which led him to ask, "How's the cab business in Portland?" I knew exactly why he asked it, but was surprised that he knew how many Somali cab drivers there were in Maine's largest city. Then I learned that Maine had gained a friendly reputation among Somalis, especially Lewiston  - Sam Smithy

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said some nasty things about Maine's Somalians, including blaming them for an increase in crime. In fact, he was 180 degrees off base.

Boston Globe - In Lewiston, where an estimated 7,000 Somalis live, police said that crime is going down, not up.

“The Somalis have not caused any increase in crime. They’re integrated here in our city,” the acting police chief, Brian O’Malley, said. “The Somalis come here because they want somewhere safe and good schools to raise their kids, and that’s what Lewiston has.”

Crime in the city fell 17 percent in 2015 compared with the year before, continuing a steady, downward trend, O’Malley said.

At least 12,000 Somali refugees are estimated to have migrated to Maine following a horrific civil war in their East African homeland. Many settled first in cities such as Atlanta before moving to Maine to take advantage of more affordable housing and other services.

Maine Beacon - A new report from the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress examines how well refugees from four key groups are integrating into American society.

One finding is that Lewiston is a prime example in New England of the positive effects of Somali integration.

David Dyssegaard Kallick, a senior fellow and director of the Immigration Research Initiative at the Fiscal Policy Institute, says about one in 12 immigrants arriving in the U.S. comes here as a refugee.

“Sure, they need some help to get started,” he states. “When they first come to the United States, they come from some of the most horrific situations around the world.

“But when you look at the long term, people become integrated, they start to get jobs, they own their own homes, they learn English – you know, they become Americans.”

Kallick says one refugee group is playing a particularly important role in breathing new life into cities like Lewiston: “Somalis, around Lewiston especially, have really been part of revitalizing the economy there, helping to stabilize what’s otherwise been population loss,” he states. “And I know that they’ve found jobs in some of the Lewiston factories, for example. So, I think that’s one real standout within New England.”

Times Argus - Roughly 1,000 Somali refugees who had been resettled elsewhere in the U.S. began relocating to Lewiston of their own accord from February 2001 to August 2002.

“That’s unplanned, unprogrammed, ‘here we are’ relocation,” Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau said. “Considering the size of our community, that’s a large relocation happening is a short amount of time.”

The migration was attributed to Lewiston having a low crime rate, a good quality of life and cheap housing. Studies provided by Nadeau rejected claims it was because of Maine’s generous welfare benefits, noting that many came from states that were equally or even more generous.

It wasn’t a smooth process. At one point, Lewiston’s mayor wrote an open letter to the Somali community asking them to discourage additional Somalis from coming, which prompted a white supremacist group to hold a rally in the city.

There was also a fear that public assistance — administered on a municipal level in Maine — would be overwhelmed. While many Somalis started out on public assistance, Nadeau said they moved out ,and in 2015 Lewiston spent the same amount in public assistance — about $1 million — as it did circa 1991.

“If you adjust for inflation, what we spent in ’90-’91, in 2015 dollars, it was $2 million,” he said.

The migration continued, and by 2011, the Somlai population of Lewiston was estimated at 5,000. The city — which totals roughly 36,000 people — also began to take in refugees and asylum-seekers from other nations.

Fifteen years later, Nadeau said Lewiston’s current condition indicates the newcomers integrated successfully.

“Many news organizations, many academics, have talked about us because they believe what we’re doing is good work,” he said. “Do I personally believe it? You betcha. I’m very biased ... but it’s defensible because other people are saying it about us.”

Stanley Delorm, spent time in Lewiston as district manager of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company before moving away. He returned to the area — he lives in the mountains outside of town — about five years ago.

“I lived here from ’81 to ’86,” Delorm said. “You probably saw half a dozen blacks. The other day, when I was down on the main street, I saw 50 black people and probably one white one. I gotta tell you what I heard about them — the young children are probably the best in the school.”

Delorm drove by some massive industrial buildings.

“These were all shoe factories, years ago,” he said. “Some are apartment houses now. Some are vacant. They’re thinking about using some for other things. They’ve torn some of them down.”

He turned onto Lisbon Street, a downtown area with businesses including a bike shop, a smoke shop and a Halal grocery.

“Used to be, most of these stores were empty,” he said. “That big three-story building was full of pigeons, no windows.”..

Indeed, business owners and city officials alike describe the city as undergoing a “renaissance.” While the renaissance coincided with the arrival of the refugees, Nadeau said it was not because of the refugees, but rather a concerted development effort that was already underway.

Even if the refugees were not part of how Lewiston got to where it is now, Nadeau said they were an important part of where the city is going.

“Lots of these people are working in jobs around the community ... they’re all contributors,” he said. “Every time they take up residence in an apartment downtown — that had a pretty high vacancy rate — that’s economic development.”

With an aging population in Maine Nadeau said immigration is vital.

“We need these younger demographics to fill the jobs,” he said. They’re part of something that was well on its way when they got here. They are going to be a part of something really important. If they hadn’t gotten here, we might be having a really different discussion about our future and our ability to fill jobs.”

Nadeau said the refugees did have a visible impact in the downtown area.

“It’s not every storefront on Lisbon Street (occupied by Somali-owned businesses) ... but it’s noticeable,” he said. “It’s important because these storefronts might not otherwise have ever been filled.”

One of those Lisbon Street storefronts is The Mogadishu Store. Roadwork was underway right outside it t. The shelves inside were mostly stocked with relatively familiar ingredients like lentils, tea and spice mixes, but once cooler held packages of ground camel meat.

The store also does a brisk takeout trade in samabusas — Somali meat pies not immediately distinguishable from Indian samosas.

Farhiya Mahamud, daughter of the owners, said when her family first arrived in 2002, her parents took entry-level jobs.

“(Her father) was a professor in Somalia,” she said. “He had a Ph.D. in chemistry. When he came here, he had to do college all over again because they didn’t recognize the African credentials. He wound up working at CVS as a clerk. My mom was a janitor at the high school.”

Down the street and around the corner from the Mogadishu Store is Simones Hot Dog Stand. Owner Jimmy Simones was celebrating his 43 anniversary with the family business.

Simones he said he started work there the day after he finished high school. He was the third generation of Simones to sling hot dogs at the restaurant, which was founded in 1908.

“As you can see, we have a lot going on, a renaissance going on,” Simones said. “(The Somalis) contributed — no question about that. It took them a while to get acclimated, but they’re learning. We get along well with everyone. They’re our customers.”

Simones recalled when the Somalis began arriving.

“The apprehension was, where are we going to put all these people?” he said. “Where are they going to live? We didn’t have the housing stock. We’re building more new units and, more and more, they’re buying their own places.”

James Gibney,Bloomberg, 2015 - When they arrived, they found a city back on its heels. Lewiston’s population had dropped by 10 percent in the 1990s, its downtown had never recovered from the closure of mills and the businesses they supported, and jobs were scarce. In a city with two of Maine's poorest census tracts, a swelling contingent of welfare-dependent non-English-speaking immigrants traumatized by war and violence didn’t exactly promise an economic miracle. Nonetheless, they brought new life to downtown -- new restaurants and shops, businesses, even a mosque. Many found jobs in and around Lewiston, and for those who didn’t, their welfare payments still helped the local economy.

More importantly, they grew and rejuvenated Lewiston’s population. That’s critical for Maine, a state whose demographics are a slow-motion economic disaster. As the Maine Department of Labor’s chief economist has noted, Maine’s unenviable status as the oldest state in the union has less to do with a lot of seniors than a lot of Baby Boomers who didn’t have many kids.

That affects everything from the labor force to school and university enrollments. By one estimate, Maine has to attract at least 3,000 new residents annually for the next 20 years to sustain its workforce, in addition to keeping its existing youngsters from moving away.

As a result of Lewiston’s African influx, since 2002 the number of kids in its schools has risen by 10 percent. If that’s a burden, it’s one that nearby communities might like to have: The school population for the rest of Androscoggin County has fallen by 15 percent.

At one level, Maine’s zany, Tea Party-steeped governor Paul LePage understands that his state needs more people to thrive. "We have more people in Maine dying than being born," he said last year.

But that was in remarks reiterating his opposition to abortion. His administration has sought to strip asylum seekers of general assistance, even though federal law prohibits them from working while their applications are pending. And he has regularly blamed "illegals" for everything from welfare fraud and crime to the spread of disease -- positions whose spirit Lewiston's current mayor has echoed.

Lewiston's director of economic and community development told the Boston Globe this summer that the unemployment rate among Somalis is only slightly higher than the state rate of 4.7 percent. And it boasts the lowest crime rate of Maine's cities.

What's real, abiding and understandable is the kind of culture shock that comes when an established, tight-knit community is deluged by newcomers. Lewiston's overwhelmingly white, Catholic, Franco-American inhabitants were themselves victims of ordinances banning French in local schools until only a few decades ago.

Injecting African Muslims into their midst is a huge challenge for both sides, especially in a state with so little diversity to begin with...

As one Somali college graduate leaving Maine for a big-city university in another state said, "It's exhausting … being Somali and living in Lewiston because it's not just limelight, it's kind of like a shining, beaming spotlight that goes with you wherever you go."

That challenge of integration and adjustment faces communities across the United States, whether Somalis, Guatemalans, or -- eventually, perhaps -- tens of thousands of Syrians. Meeting it will require not just more federal and state support, but greater understanding on all sides, from refugee organizations that take more time to consult with local stakeholders to officials who resist the political temptation to scapegoat new arrivals for old problems..

Lewiston’s polyglot high school soccer team, with players like Abdi Shariff-Hassan, Maulid Abdow and Noralddin Othman, just won the State Soccer Finals. Go Blue Devils -- and don't leave Maine!

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