LEWISTON, Maine - In the heart of Lewiston, Maine’s business district, tucked away in the back of an elegant business building sits a cozy, two-roomed office. Pictures of farmers, smiling kids in matching shirts and people dancing cover the walls while a warm murmur dances from the radiator in the corner.
Behind a desk in the smaller room sits Muhidin Libah, who types away tirelessly on his computer while glancing back and forth at a piece of paper lying on his desk. Since 2005, Libah has run the Somali Bantu Community Mutual Assistance Association (SBCMALA) to assist the refugee community transitioning to their new lives in Maine.
One of the greatest transitions for refugees is adapting to a new community.
“Sometimes someone will yell at you ‘go back home’ and you yell back...that is not okay,” expressed Libah. “Instead, tell a story. Tell a story of where you come from and why you are here. It really helps.”
Maine is no stranger to immigration. In a country with the largest official resettlement program in the world, that should come with no surprise. But the face of immigration in the state has changed throughout history, from pale-shaded foreigners to people whose appearance and cultures have moved further to the other side the spectrum of color. Somalis, like Libah, and other West African immigrants have made their way to Maine with hopes to start a new life. As time has passed, Maine — one of the least racially diverse states in the U.S. — has slowly opened it’s doors, and its hearts, to those who are owed a place to call home
New in town
Irish and Québécois (also known as ‘Franco’) immigrants were some of the first to relocate to Maine after the general population of English Colonials and Native Americans had long been established. They came because of agricultural disasters and the need for a new life, and they took on most of the dirty work that Mainers didn’t like to do — such as digging canals for mill construction and working in the wool and cotton mills.
They came “by foot, by train and they didn’t have passports. There was no legal or illegal — they just showed up,” said Jim Tierney, former Attorney General, in a talk at Bates College entitled "Immigration in Maine: Past and Future."
They worked hard for their place in Maine, despite the wages being low. They remained to help build a piece of Maine and to continue their own story.
However, in the 1920s, an anti-Franco movement arose as Maine became a center for the Klu Klux Klan. In her piece Maine's Gone Mad: The Rising of the Klan, Raney Bench wrote that “Maine’s relationship with the Klan was short lived, but surprisingly intense.” At its height, members represented 23% of Maine’s population and were active in places such as Portland, Lewiston and Mount Desert Island.
Much after the 1920s, the hate that was brought upon by the Anti-Franco movement was then translated over to the Somali immigrants. Klan members went to the lengths of setting off bombs in Lewiston to let them know they were not welcome, and a majority of legislators mirrored this hate.
“They tried to make it as rough as they could to send the Francos back where they came from,” recalled Tierney.
But several Maine leaders — such as senatorial candidate Percival Baxter — worked to make sure the hate did not consume Maine residents while these new groups of immigrants made their way into the state.
According to Phil Nadeau’s case study, many Somalis began their journey in Atlanta, Georgia, Nashville, Tennessee and Louisville, Kentucky and then later resettled to places like Maine because the quality of life was said to be better.
And it was.
“Refugees want to live here for the same reason you want to live here,” said Hannah DeAngelis, 25, Assistant Program Director at Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services. “They are fleeing violence and war, so they’re looking for the comfort of a community.”
Somalis were able to find employment in the Steel Mills, the merchant marine industry as well as education in the universities. But where they found opportunity, they continued to be met by the similar hate of that of their predecessors.
An article in the New Yorker entitled “Letter from Maine: New in Town” recalls an open letter that Raymond Laurier, former Mayor of Lewiston, wrote to the Somali community in 2002. He asked them to stop bringing their families and friends to Lewiston, and to “exercise discipline” so as to reduce stress on the resources and generosity of the city. In short, he wasn’t a fan.
This letter became a national news story that attracted white supremacist organizations such as the World Church of the Creator. They organized a rally against the “Somali invasion,” that was then met with a counter-rally organized by state officials at Bates College that attracted thousands of more people — 4,500 people to be exact.
Somali immigrants began to see a paradigm shift. The hate was beginning to be replaced with compassion and acceptance.
Somalis widely became involved across the city — acting as interpreters as well as serving on local social service agency boards — and other parts of the city became widely involved within the Somali Community.
They now make up 10% of the Lewiston population, while populations of Congolese, Angolan, and Burundian follow closely behind.
Transitioning to acceptance
One notable piece of Maine’s immigrant story is the Lewiston Adult Education center. Providing services such as enrichment classes, workforce training, and English for speakers of other languages, students there are able to work towards high school and college diplomas as well as receive help to secure jobs.
“The center is bursting at the seams,” exclaimed Poland. People are always coming and going — at least ten new people a week and the demand is so large that the center has a waiting list of about thirty people.
“At one point there was a couple on the waiting list and the husband came in asking that his wife be moved off the waiting list because their kids were coming home from school every day wanting to speak English...and the mom just couldn’t understand,” recalled Poland.
The transition to a new life is hard, but places like the Lewiston Adult Education Center are truly helping the refugee and migrant communities.
Around 300 students are currently accessing the services — mostly refugees that come referred to by Catholic Charities, but also a lot of asylum seekers that find the center on their own.
“The same supports [that exist for refugees] don’t exist for asylum seekers...there is a large amount of time where they have nothing and can’t work,” said Poland.
Poland speaks of a student who spends all his days at the center because he simply has nothing else to do. In her words, he soaks up as much as he can while he waits for asylum. The process is very long and difficult, and those who are seeking it cannot work during that time.
“Most are in limbo, so the center is a go-to place,” said Poland.
Another go-to place is with Muhidin at the Somali Bantu Community Association. Offering transition services such as email help, conflict resolution, women empowerment, medical reconciliation and a community farming program, the association exists to help whoever shows up at the door.
The community farming program has been especially successful and is gaining momentum. In 2015, Jan and Carl Wilcox of Yarmouth, Maine began leasing their land to the organization and this has helped Somali Bantus get back to their traditional farming lifestyle and become more independent and comfortable in their new community.
“We don’t like to depend on anything...no one wants to go to the store for tomatoes,” laughed Libah.
This project has also helped the community with the difficulty of exercise. Libah remembered back home in Somalia that everyone had to walk two miles to get water and they were farming every day under the hot sun. Nothing was within walking distance like in Lewiston, so part of the efforts of the organization is convincing people to do small things everyday to maintain the lifestyle they had back home.
The story of immigration will continue to be comprised of mostly Somalis, like Libah, as well as many Iraqis. Because Maine does mostly family reunification, there isn’t much of a projection in shift of countries where people are coming from.
Nonetheless, “there has been an enormous amount of support [from Mainers] for Syrian refugees...because they are wanting to do the work the Pope wants them to do,” said DeAngelis.
But the attacks in Paris last year really changed that initial support. Catholic Charities received calls threatening the organization if they began helping out Syrians.
Governor LePage shared the same sentiments. An article in the Bangor Daily News quoted, “I adamantly oppose any attempt by the federal government to place Syrian refugees in Maine…and will take every lawful measure in my power to prevent it from happening.” This chimed into the cacophony of Republican Governors across the nation demanding that the U.S. stop accepting Syrians right after the Paris attacks.
DeAngelis says the acceptance is possible in the future, but because resettlements are backed up nationally, there is a much stronger focus on reuniting families. Maine will welcome more Congolese families this year and so far has already granted asylum to many Burundi and Angolan families.
Understanding it all
The introduction of this African community that is neither white nor Catholic in a state where 96% of people identify as such has been tough.
“There are people who write ‘go back home’ on your car or on a note… but it’s a fraction of the population,” recalled Libah.
That fraction might want to reconsider their thoughts. Poland from Lewiston Adult Education made a point that many basic services would not be possible without refugees. Somalis are the ones baking the donuts at Dunkin Donuts, the ones working the 2pm to midnight shift and the ones cleaning the bathrooms in Wal-Mart.
“They’re doing jobs most people turn their nose up to,” stressed Poland.
And this is a reality all across Maine. The New Yorker recalls migrant workers as an important pillar of Maine’s economy. We have apples because Jamaicans and Haitians pick them, we have blueberries and fish-processing factories thanks to Mexicans, and our logging industry exists because of the hard work of Guatemalans and Hondurans.
“Lobstering is practically the only traditional Maine occupation still performed exclusively by local whites,” reads the New Yorker.
But while most of those migrant workers depart at the end of the season, the Somalis and other West African migrants don’t leave. They continue their story.
“We forget that they’re here because something is happening in their home...they are amazing people who want to make a life in a positive way,” reflected Poland.
Additionally, “no one moves because they want to live in a new home. They love their homes as much as we love ours. But they have to go and it’s traumatizing,” said Tierney in his Bates College talk.
Despite setbacks from many state officials and local communities, Maine eventually succeeded in accepting and welcoming the Francos and the Irish. The success of our state has been built on the backs of those immigrants, but the future of our state will be built alongside and with our newest neighbors. Because as Poland recalls, they’re “movers and shakers” and have already created organizations and businesses within the cities, truly helping an economy in need. They’re here to stay and they’re ready to live fully.
“I did not want to die and I’m here for that reason. I do not want to grab money or get somebody’s welfare — I’m here because the two options I had was leave or get killed. So I chose to leave,” expressed Libah.