In 2000 and 2001, Somali refugees poured into Lewiston. And while they found a home there, they also found trouble.
“The initial crisis was getting people off the streets, off of homelessness, into homes,” Fatuma Hussein, head of United Somali Women of Maine, said.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into.”
What the Somali families were getting into turned out to be something that was getting into them: poisonous lead.
With very little money, the families, many of whom had young children, had to rent apartments in dilapidated downtown tenements full of chipping and peeling lead paint.
“Very shortly, we realized our children were getting sick; we had never ever experienced this, we had no idea,” Hussein said. “They were getting sick in the sense that there were developmental delays …. The lead levels were discovered from the blood testing, so the doctors were saying, ‘Your child has this, your child has that.’”
Lewiston doctors told Amina Farah her two younger children were lead poisoned after she brought them to the hospital because she felt they were both “hyper.” She and her family had moved to Lewiston seeking political asylum in 2009.
“I cried,” Farah said. “They told me there was many problems that would come, mental issues. I was scared and feel very sad and cry.
“When I bring my kids here to U.S., they are not like that. Now they’re nervous and hyper, it’s damaged my kids. I cannot do anything because at that time I did not know.”
Hussein and others have worked in recent years with public health officials, hospitals and foundations to educate the area’s Somali immigrants about lead hazards, producing, for example, videos in Somali about how to prevent childhood lead poisoning.