OTHER VOICES

Lewiston mayor needs to reframe his ideas on culture

Posted Sept. 30, 2012, at 7:48 p.m.

Try as we might, we find it difficult to reconcile Lewiston’s two mayors.

There’s the one who told us in an interview Thursday he is not asking refugees from African turmoil to worship or dress differently and that he feels they have a strong work ethic and that their “children are very bright.”

Then there is the one who told a BBC interviewer that when it comes to refugees, “When you come here, you accept our culture and you leave your culture at the door.”

When asked Thursday exactly what parts of Somali culture he would like people to leave behind, the mayor couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say.

He said he has a “very good rapport” with Somali leaders and they “treat him like part of the family” when he attends their functions.

He points with pride to the 26 Somali businesses in the city, and to the African immigrants who have purchased homes in his own neighborhood.

But then there is the Mayor Robert Macdonald who told WGME-TV recently that “these people who are yelling I’m insensitive to their culture, if [their culture] is so great, why are they not back in Somalia?”

(Actually, the people “yelling” about this have not been Somalis so much as sympathetic white people concerned that the mayor’s comments might inflame racial tension in Lewiston-Auburn.)

There is the Mayor Macdonald who said Thursday that “refugees and asylum seekers” only account for 19 percent of the city’s general assistance spending, half of which is paid for by the state.

But then there is the Mayor Macdonald who told the BBC that the “immigrants who have come here have cost us a lot of money, and we’re continuing to fight with the federal government, you know, ‘You brought them in, you pay for them.’”

In fact, Lewiston has received both state and federal funding to help smooth the immigrants’ transition.

According to one report, “lawfully admitted noncitizen residents” here accounted for 7 percent of monthly TANF spending in Lewiston-Auburn and less than 4 percent of food stamps. Both involve federal money.

The report found that Lewiston has received $9 million from federal and private sources since 2001 aimed at helping the immigrant demographic.

Still, a case can be made that the federal government should rightfully do more, and several Lewiston mayors have pursued that claim.

The mayor’s culture comments to the BBC and WGME are unfortunate, and we hope he will reconsider the meaning of the word culture and how his remarks are interpreted by others.

American culture is like a tidal wave. We dominate the global market with our movies, television and music, and many other countries seek out the products of our culture.

Meanwhile, we have successfully integrated vastly different cultures into our own, regularly adopting the best of each into our language, customs, entertainment and cuisine.

Several weeks ago, local Greeks celebrated their culture at their church, which resulted in photos and stories in this newspaper.

Last week, we staged a political debate at the Franco-American Heritage Center, itself a living monument to the French Canadian immigrants who helped build this city.

Culture is what we celebrate. It’s what makes New Orleans and New England both tourist destinations.

We enjoy Indian, Greek, Italian, Thai, Chinese, French and Somali foods in our restaurants, and many of us wish we could speak a second or third language.

This is a proudly multicultural country, and no one should be asked to leave their culture at the door.

“We need Somalis here. In the future, they will be an economic engine that will help us succeed.”

That, too, was Mayor Macdonald, in our Thursday interview, and we couldn’t agree more with that Mayor Macdonald.

Sun Journal, Lewiston (Sept. 27)

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