Struggle and progess: 10 years of Somalis in Lewiston

Posted Dec. 18, 2011, at 11:24 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 18, 2011, at 7:15 p.m.

“I can’t believe I’ve been here 10 years,” Hussein Ahmed said, sitting in a meeting at the African Immigrants Association office on Lisbon Street, a week after the November election.

Others in the room, a collection of local Somali leaders — social services caseworkers, a nurse and a mosque administrator among them — nodded their heads in agreement, each lost in a momentary review of their experiences since moving to Lewiston.

It’s true, though, or nearly so. Ahmed, owner of the Barwaqo Halal Store on Lisbon Street, arrived in Lewiston in 2002. The first Somali families had made their homes in Lewiston more than a year earlier.

In terms of immigration and cultural integration, a decade isn’t a very long time, but a great deal has happened. Ten years is enough time for the city’s Somali population to grow to nearly 10 percent of the total population, making Lewiston perhaps the only city in the country where the largest minority group is Somali.

And it’s enough time for their influence on Lewiston’s streets, schools and economy to be seen and felt in major ways. Somalis have rapidly become active, full-fledged members of the community, and a growing number have received citizenship.

This year’s local election reflected that: For the first time, Somalis ran for public office, conducting write-in campaigns for an at-large seat on the Lewiston School Committee. One received more than 41 percent of the vote, but lost to a former school superintendent.

It’s also enough time for some things to seemingly come full circle, and the election mirror that, too: Statements that Mayor-elect Bob Macdonald made during his campaign have echoed the kind of public sentiment that led former Mayor Larry Raymond to write an open letter in 2002 asking that Somalis slow down their migration to the city.

The topic of Ahmed’s meeting that mid-November evening was the runoff election. Ahmed and his peers wanted to discuss how to encourage people to participate in the final mayoral election.

“This is a simple, straightforward issue: the right to vote,” Ahmed said. “We want to be part of the system, to vote, run for office.” He said he wanted to help Somalis who have gained citizenship understand the election process.

“The bright future that I see in Lewiston is not where it was 10 years ago,” he said.

First arrivals

In late January 2001, Awil Bile moved to Lewiston with his family and two others. There were no other Somalis in the city at that time, Bile says.

He had studied in Italy for two years in the 1970s, and worked in Somalia’s finance ministry under the government of Siad Barre, a military coup leader turned dictator. After seizing power in 1969, Barre courted first the Soviet Union and then the United States for economic and military support.

Straddling the Horn of Africa that juts into the Indian Ocean to the south of the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia held strategic interest for the two superpowers. In the 1970s and ’80s, they took turns washing the nation with weaponry. In 1991, Somalia’s people took those weapons, deposed Barre and embarked on a civil war that the country has yet to resolve.

Hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled the country, most escaping across the southern border to Kenya, where enormous refugee camps were established at Dadaab and Kakuma. Bile and Ahmed’s families were among them, their homes and property in Somalia lost.

In the camps, employment was scarce. Movement was constrained, and food was rationed. Nearly a decade after leaving their homeland, Bile and his family were accepted as legal residents of the United States with refugee status and were settled in Pittsburgh. They stayed there for three months, then came to Portland, where a Somali population was growing. But Bile and other Somalis struggled to find adequate housing for their large families.

At the same time, Lewiston had high vacancy rates in its downtown as well as at Hillview, a public housing project composed of three-, four- and five-bedroom units off Sabattus Street, said James Dowling, Lewiston Housing Authority’s executive director.

Portland housing officials approached Lewiston with the idea of giving Somali families who could not find space for their families in the larger city the option to settle farther north. Lewiston agreed, and so did Bile and the two other families.

While they were drawn by the availability of housing, they quickly found that Lewiston had other attractive features.

In Maine’s second-largest city, they found the community nestled in a mid-winter lull. There was snow on the ground. They were surprised; it was the first time they had seen it. The streets were quiet and mostly devoid of traffic, and the population seemed mostly older, Bile said. It was safe for the children. The crime rate was low. City officials were willing to work with them. For Bile and the other families, Lewiston seemed like a place where they might, for once, find peace.

Migration to Lewiston

Driven by word of mouth, the number of Somalis arriving in Lewiston continued to grow throughout 2002. “Day after day, week after week, Somali people came,” Bile said.

It is impossible to tell how many Somalis came that first year, but city General Assistance records show that 443 Somalis applied for financial aid for the first time (but did not necessarily receive it) in 2001. By June 2002, the Somali population was estimated to be 1,000.

By 2010 the city’s black or African-American population had grown to 3,174, according to the U.S. Census. That figure does not distinguish between blacks born in America and immigrants from African nations or, for that matter, from the large percentage of children born in this country to Somali refugee families. But it likely undercounts the ethnic Somali population.

Generally, city officials estimate that the size of Lewiston’s Somali population today is somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000. Hussein Ahmed estimates that the number is closer to 6,000.

Lewiston’s Somali community is composed almost entirely of “secondary migrants,” as they are known in the language of refugee and immigration experts. Like Bile, they were originally placed elsewhere by refugee resettlement agencies and have chosen to move here.

Many had been placed in the inner-city slums of larger cities rife with drugs and crime. A significant number arrived from the Atlanta area, including suburban Clarkston, which suffered “prejudice, police brutality, and a small community of roughly 7,000 that was shattered under the pressure of a broken refugee resettlement system,” according to a report issued by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2010.

Lewiston’s Somalis came from roughly 100 cities in 35 states, said Phil Nadeau, the city’s deputy city administrator, who has been involved with the community since the first arrivals.

Settling in

Now a business owner, father of six children (five born in Maine), master’s degree student and active community organizer, Ahmed was among the initial wave of Somalis to arrive by the end of 2002.

A friend decided to move to Lewiston and asked Ahmed to help him drive a vehicle from Georgia to Maine. Ahmed was not sure how far away Maine was or what it would have to offer, but the friend encouraged him to make the journey, and eventually he agreed.

After a few days in Lewiston, something unexpected happened, Ahmed said. He submitted a job application at a call center called LifeBridge and was interviewed that very afternoon. By the end of the day, he had been offered a job.

“This was my fifth day in Maine,” he recalled. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll try.’”

His English was still heavily accented, he said, and many of the callers thought he was Indian, expressing surprise when he told them he was in Maine. Some who called the center to activate debit and credit cards were reluctant to give him their card information, and he often had to answer questions about his personal life to ease the tension.

But he found he was comfortable working there. The call center was busy, and he liked his co-workers. “I stayed for a week, and then a month,” he said. And then he called his wife, asking her to move to Lewiston.

Ahmed had found a home.

Public tension surfaces

As more Somalis moved into Lewiston, signs of strain began to show.

Lewiston’s white-picket-fence complexion meant that Somalis, with their darker skin and traditional Muslim-influenced clothes, stood out.

So when recent Somali arrivals began using the parks and shopping in corner variety stores and applied for General Assistance, people remembered them. And they were especially likely to remember if there was something amiss, such as a misunderstanding between a Somali shopper and a cashier.

The public tension increasingly focused on finances, and access to social services became the key flash point when public officials discussed the city’s work with the refugee community. Residents called officials like Sue Charron, the director of social services, and Nadeau, almost daily to complain about Somalis getting benefits that the callers felt belonged to local natives.

The questions and complaints continued, dominating discussion at a May 14, 2002, public meeting to discuss immigration, and grew and morphed until a set of myths became codified in local conversation: Somalis didn’t work; they exhausted local welfare coffers, received free apartments and cars and walked out of supermarkets with loaded carts shouting, “Government pay!”

Responding to the public concern, Mayor Larry Raymond penned an open letter in October 2002 that asked Somalis to advise friends and relatives considering moving to Lewiston that the city’s schools and social services were nearly exhausted.

“This large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all. The Somali community must exercise some discipline and reduce stress on our limited finances and generosity,” he wrote.

The response to the letter, from Lewiston’s Somali leaders, as well as national and international observers, was largely scathing. Almost overnight, the media descended on Lewiston to cover the surprising growth of the Somali population and the backlash against the letter.

Raymond refused to apologize for the letter and quickly stopped talking to all but the local press. Eventually, he declined to discuss the letter with any media, including for this story. Other local leaders continue to defend Raymond.

“I know that he’s not a racist,” Mayor Larry Gilbert said. “There was fear, and people were expressing that to him in such numbers that he felt he had to do something to show them that he was doing something about it.”

Since 2002, Raymond and the Somali community have patched their relationship in certain ways; Bile says that the letter’s unwelcoming message “was unintentional.” And the Lisbon Street building that serves as the mosque for the city’s Somalis and other Muslims was owned by Raymond, until he sold it to the Islamic Center.

But at the time, his words cut the Somali community deeply and served to formalize what had previously been mere opinions expressed by individuals, said Fatuma Hussein, director of United Somali Women of Maine, an advocacy and training nonprofit based in Lewiston.

“What the letter signified, and also opened up, was this attitude about Somalis,” she said.

This, rather than the ability to make policy, is the real power that the Lewiston mayor wields: to set the tone for public discourse, and to shape and direct the city’s collective thought.

The recent election of Bob Macdonald as the city’s mayor has re-energized fear among the Somali community, Ahmed said. “Nobody in this community wants to go back,” to the Raymond era, Ahmed said.

“We don’t want [Macdonald] to be detrimental to all the developments that have happened,” he said. “We want someone who can take us to the next step,” someone who can fight population loss and help create a more cohesive city even as it grows more diverse, Ahmed said.

Raymond’s letter, Hussein said, “created a rift, a division, segregation. If a person in leadership can do that and get away with it, why not all of us?”

After the letter, fighting between Somalis and their neighbors increased, as did harassment on the city’s streets, she said.

“Those days, it was really tough. It was everywhere,” Ahmed said.

“Yet, Somalis were very scared to report anything. They reported very little, if anything,” Hussein said.

Lewiston’s Somalis weren’t the only ones who took note of Raymond’s open letter: so did the World Church of the Creator, a white-supremacist group based in Wyoming, which quickly announced that it would hold a rally in Lewiston. Then came a media swarm, as national and international outlets descended on the city.

But as a result of the letter and the magnifying glass of international scrutiny that followed it, support for the Somali community began to solidify. Beforehand, “nothing was happening that was upfront and obvious” in terms of community support for Somalis, Nadeau said.

Suddenly, people began to talk in public in favor of the refugee community and their right, as legal residents of the United States, to live where they chose. A group called Many and One spearheaded an effort to organize a counter-rally to the World Church of the Creator’s.

By the time the rallies happened in February 2003, that support had become the story.

Ahmed attended the Many and One rally at Bates College with more than 4,000 others. Perhaps 40 people, few from the area, attended the World Church of the Creator rally held at the Armory that day. “When I look at it from that perspective, early 2003, I think most people have good hearts,” Ahmed says.

“We had such a big, big, big community support that showed up at Bates,” he said. “It made me realize there was big support that we were not aware of. It motivated a lot of Somalis, gave them hope that they can stay here.”

Finding work

Ahmed left the call center for a job as an employment case manager for the Lewiston-Auburn Collaborative, coaching other refugees on how to find jobs. He dealt often with local companies, he said, trying to “match [Somalis’] experiences with employer expectations.”

By late 2002, about 50 percent of Lewiston’s adult Somalis had found jobs. That percentage remained fairly steady as the population grew over the decade, Nadeau said.

CareerCenter Director Mary LaFontaine lists 13 employers who have frequently hired Somalis, including L.L. Bean, the hospitals, Goodwill, the Walmart distribution center, the Good Shepherd Food-Bank, the Tambrands subcontractor Staff Management, a Winthrop computer parts maker and a Freeport hotel. Around Lewiston, Somalis have also found employment in the schools and social service departments, and as independent translators, child care providers, farmers and shopkeepers.

For Somalis, the job search struggle was and is compounded by language barriers, the post-industrial nature of Lewiston’s economy and employers’ confusion over cultural differences, LaFontaine said.

Some employers are still hesitant to hire Somalis because of perceived hassles related to Somali culture or their Islamic faith, LaFontaine said. One of the greatest stereotypes has been that Muslims require a dedicated room for their prayers.

Islam requests that its followers pray five times a day, three of which would occur during a 9-to-5 work shift. The prayers are physical activities, involving a series of motions as believers kneel, touch their heads to the ground and stand while reciting memorized verses.

But they do not require a mosque, or even a room set aside exclusively for prayer. A quiet corner will do. Ahmed, who said he usually prays four times a day, often does so in the small office at the back of his shop.

Aside from financial issues, cultural questions — about prayer, Somali gender dynamics, head scarves, parenting styles and language — have been the other great challenge for the people of Lewiston as the face of the community changes. For some Lewiston residents, the influx of Somalis raised serious and significant questions about what it meant to be an American and a Mainer.

“I have finally decided why the influx of Somalis bothers me so much,” a Lewiston woman named Karen Horton wrote in a letter to the Sun Journal in June 2002. “To me, Maine is friendly people who have lived here forever with wonderful Maine accents. Maine is getting lost and being told, ‘You caaaan’t get thayah from heyah,’ The Somalis are going to change the Maine I know and love. I doubt that they will ever develop the Maine accent that I love and cherish.”

Lewiston Somalis are faced with similar questions. There is great pressure within their community to be “good Somalis” and “good Muslims,” Heather Lindkvist, a scholar of Maine’s Somalis and Muslims in the United States, wrote in an essay published in 2008.

“We want our children to keep our cultural heritage,” Ahmed said. “We don’t want to lose [the language, the dress code].”

Ahmed and other Somali parents struggle at times with the Americanization of their children — including the focus on the individual here. “I have put my life on hold to make sure that my parents and family don’t starve to death,” Fatuma Hussein said. “So when my daughter comes in my house and says, ‘What about me?’ I’m not going to tolerate that.”

Drugs, romantic relationships, kids loitering — Somali parents aren’t happy about those particular traits of adolescence in Lewiston. Often they don’t know how to navigate those issues, having little personal experience. And the less English they speak, the less they are able to determine what is normal for kids in America.

The children, meanwhile, are stuck “between two cultures,” said Amina Muse, a receptionist for the Department of Health and Human Services. “One is inside the home, and the other is outside the home.” But American culture is not so easy to leave behind once they’ve shut the door. It’s “even inside the home, on the TV.”

“I’m trying to talk [to my children] as much as possible in Somali,” Ahmed said. Beyond that and their attendance at the dugsi, religious classes held on weekends at the Islamic Center, his children’s involvement in legitimate Somali culture is “going to be very limited,” he said.

They were born here, are raised and schooled and surrounded by American culture, and they will likely never truly understand their own Somalinimo (Somaliness). “[My son] has no history, he has no background” in it, Ahmed said.

It is not the end of the world for Ahmed, however. “I don’t know how he’ll grow, how his experience will shape him,” he said. At this point, his oldest son seems to identify more with being American than with being Somali. But “my major worry is … me trying to make him successful with his schoolwork,” Ahmed said.

In fact, Ahmed seems as torn as his children are. “I want him to fit in as much as possible,” he said. “I don’t want him to be so separate from the system that it disadvantages him.”

Juggling work, family

And so Ahmed keeps working, juggling the shop with the kids and the leadership and advocacy responsibilities he has taken on within the community.

In 2004, while Ahmed was still working for the Lewiston-Auburn Collaborative, he and two partners started a business together. They each chipped in $6,000 from their savings — none of their first venture was funded by loans — to open a small shop on Lisbon Street, close to his current location in the former Dube Travel Agency.

After working for two years at his full-time job with the city, as well as in his store, “Something was going to fall apart,” Ahmed said. “So I made a decision I don’t regret, and that I think is the best decision I’ve ever made” — to quit his job and focus on his business. Soon after, he bought out his partners and became the sole owner.

Then he set about diversifying his business model. He added an interpreting division and now subcontracts eight translators to meet the needs of local hospitals and social service organizations. He’s added tax services, filling out simple 1040 forms, and is an agent for a hawala, a Western Union-like operation to send remittances back to family still in Africa.

Ahmed’s shop is far from the only Somali-owned business to open on Lisbon Street. In fact, following the flow of traffic, his is one of the first of an entire block dominated by Somali businesses.

The products in these shops are familiar to newer refugee arrivals still learning about American life, the cramped aisles more comfortable to them than the sea of choices in larger supermarkets. Collectively, they form an Americanized version of the old-world-style bazaar, where dozens of merchants gather in open air to sell and socialize.

“I love that we’re all in the same place,” Ahmed said. If a customer can’t find everything they’re looking for in his store, they may in the next one.

Still, he’s not sure whether the uniform business model can sustain all of the current shops. “From that competition perspective, it’s tough,” he said. “Some will remain.”

He believes his business will continue to flourish “if I improve systematically, if I improve professionally.”

He works hard. Early in the week, he takes classes toward a master’s degree in leadership studies at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College. He works full time in the shop from Friday to Sunday, stocking, cleaning and catching up on paperwork. Sometimes he’s there until 9 or 10 at night.

Days off are exceedingly rare.

Daily prayer

Most days, Ahmed leaves his store for a few minutes to attend evening prayers at the Islamic Center.

Lewiston’s Islamic Center is humble, inside and out. A narrow, three-story row house, the center has no sign on either of its entrances on Lisbon and Canal streets. Inside, each floor is dominated by a large, open room running the length of the building, as is the furnished basement. These are the prayer rooms.

The basement level is used by females, whose numbers tend to be smaller. Men pray on the upper floors, filling first the bottom floor and then spilling upward as the rooms fill. On Fridays — the Muslim holy day — all three floors fill during the midday prayers, Ahmed says.

Rather than simply a mosque, the center is at other times used as a conference room, a wedding hall and for dugsi — religious instruction for children, focused on the Koran.

Dugsi classes are on Saturday and Sunday for several hours. The children don’t get days off, either. On one morning, a group of about a dozen older boys sat on the floor of their classroom as they waited for their teacher to enter and begin class. A few wore kameez, the long robe traditionally worn by men in Somalia. Most were in American clothes, T-shirts and jeans under winter jackets. As the boys chanted passages from the Koran, one sat back against the wall, looking like he would rather be somewhere else.

Lewiston is home

On a recent Sunday morning, Ahmed’s shop was unusually quiet.

“I’m going to be in Lewiston for a long time to come,” Ahmed said. “My dream is to have my children here, to have my children educated here … to grow myself.”

He said he wants to “leave a footprint that is noticeable … in Lewiston’s history. I also foresee the Somali community being here for a long time.”

SEE COMMENTS →