BELFAST, Maine — When thousands of Somali refugees began settling in Lewiston in 2002, the city was not prepared — with the mayor at one point writing a now-infamous open letter to the newcomers asking them to stop coming.
The resulting culture clashes between Lewiston and the Somali community at times made national headlines.
Kim Huisman, a University of Maine sociology professor who now lives in Belfast, at that time was working with Bosnian Muslim refugees in Burlington, Vt. When she was hired to teach at the University of Maine, she knew she wanted to work with the Somali community in a collaborative way.
The resulting project by Huisman, other faculty and staff members and Somali students has resulted in the brand-new book, “Somalis in Maine: Crossing Cultural Currents,” which is published by North Atlantic Books and distributed by Random House.
The book contains personal stories, ethnography and essays about the interactions between Somali refugees and Americans in Lewiston.
The editors, including Huisman, hope the book will provide a good alternative to those other headlines, which have over the years focused more on negative images and events.
“When the economy’s not doing well, refugees and immigrants tend to be scapegoats,” Huisman said recently. “The book tends to be a counter-narrative to that.”
Some of the chapters are by Somali refugees who became University of Maine students, including Nasra Mohamed, who wrote about her 2009 return to the refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya, where she had spent 10 years of her childhood.
“These people chose Dadaab not because it is their dream place to live but because it is better than what is happening in Mogadishu,” she wrote. “They left their homes and joined their fellow Somalis to live in huts made of sticks and mud covered with plastic. What many once thought was a temporary relocation has become their permanent home … The camp is like a prison, one that I remember clearly. Somali refugees all have one dream, one way out: to resettle in a peaceful country.”
Some of that resettlement began in the United States after the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in 1999 encouraged the country to take in about 12,000 minority Bantu Somalis.
One of the nation’s 34 resettlement cities is Portland, where about 4,000 Somalis have settled.
Lewiston is not one of those resettlement communities, and when Somalis began telling their relatives about the affordable housing and good schools in that safe city, municipal leaders were not prepared.
“Lewiston did not see this coming,” Huisman said.
When then-Mayor Laurier T. Raymond wrote the 2002 letter to the Somalis, it was a turning point, the sociologist said.
There were rallies of support for the refugees and rallies against them, including a small demonstration by a white supremacist group in January 2003 and a much-larger counter-demonstration.
And there also was the Somali Narrative Project, which began at the University in 2004 with three Somali students who were eager to read about the history of their home country.
The group started reading about the history of colonialism in Somalia, a war-torn country in the Horn of Africa.
The experience of learning more was powerful.
“It was really enriching, and just great,” Huisman said.
As the project grew, the group began a reader’s theater presentation around the state to provide people with a glimpse of the background and history of the refugees.
An editor from North Atlantic Books was in the audience during a performance at the American Folk Festival in Bangor and proposed combining the voices of scholars and oral histories into a published anthology.
“Somalis in Maine” includes pieces by Huisman, Mazie Hough, the associate director of the Women in the Curriculum and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Maine, Kristin Langellier of the communication and journalism faculty, and Carol Nordstrom Toner, the Maine Studies program director.
The editors of “Somalis in Maine: Crossing Cultural Currents” will discuss the book at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 15, at Left Bank Books at 21 East Main Street in Searsport.
The event is free and open to the public. For information or to reserve a copy, call the bookstore at 548-6400.