By JONATHAN TILOVE
August 19, 2002
c.2002 Newhouse News Service
LEWISTON, Maine _ Every week, another four or five Somali families arrive in this workaday city on the Androscoggin River.
They are refugees from the clan-wracked ruins of their homeland on the Horn of Africa, from years of waiting in camps in Kenya. And they are migrants from their place of first resettlement in America, more often than not trekking 1,000 miles from the heat and multihued humanity of metropolitan Atlanta to this sparse, wintry, whitest of all states.
They are nomads, their ancient instincts honed to a 21st century edge. Pioneers in a new world, they discovered Lewiston and claimed a bit of it for themselves.
“It’s like finding a small island in the middle of the Pacific,” says Mohammed Abdi, who last year moved here from Decatur, Ga., and was quickly hired as the liaison between the city’s schools and the burgeoning Somali community. “We put it on the map.”
Not since 1965, when Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston a minute-46 into the first round of a heavyweight championship fight here, has Lewiston gained so much attention “from away,” as Mainers warily describe the world beyond the state’s borders.
At the start of 2001, not a single Somali lived in Lewiston. The old textile mill city of 35,000 had been losing population for 20 years, and in the 2000 Census counted but 361 black residents.
Today, there are some 1,000 Somalis, black and Muslim, in this sheltered redoubt of Franco-American Catholicism, where the 4 p.m. French Mass still packs them in at St. Peter and Paul Church. Lewiston has its first mosque, operating from a storefront on Lisbon Street, which en route to a neighboring town becomes a highway dedicated to the memory of Sgt. Thomas Field, a native son killed in Somalia in the battle depicted in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”
The newcomers are arriving from several Somali communities in the United States, but mostly from Clarkston, Ga., an old railroad town outside Atlanta that in the last decade was transformed into an ersatz Ellis Island for refugees from every ravaged corner of the globe.
In their exodus, they say they are looking for peace and quiet, cheaper housing, a more benevolent welfare system, better schools and a place to raise their children _ families of seven or more are common _ with fewer perils and temptations. That they are leaving a metro area renowned as an African-American mecca to resettle in Maine, home to fewer than 7,000 blacks in 2000, is less a matter of irony than intent, given the prickly state of their relations with African-Americans and a desire to protect their children from assimilating too quickly.
“Kids wearing bandannas, pulling their pants down, walking funny. It’s no good,” says Abdiaziz Ali, a buoyant, boyish-looking 31-year-old father of five who came to Lewiston in April 2001.
Ali, the son of a physician in Somalia, was hired as a welfare caseworker and is now the nimble impresario of Lewiston’s Somali influx, greeting new arrivals, signing them up for emergency financial assistance, finding them places to live. When Mohammed Abdi arrived, Ali made the introductions that led to his job.
There is nothing new about immigrants collecting together and re-creating community.
But the Somali migration to Lewiston is different in tempo and coordination. The process is organically Somali, merging the timeless habits of a communal, nomadic, oral society (there was no written language until 1972) with a sophisticated cost-benefit appraisal of which American community best suits their needs.
It’s executed at warp speed courtesy of the Internet, telephone cards and air travel. But it all begins with the Somali concept of “sahan.”
“Sahan in Somali means `send out,”’ Abdi explains. It refers to the nomadic practice of sending out young men, scouts, in search of storm clouds. When they find them they return to their people and lead them and their herds to fresh water.
“The idea of sahan means a very systematic reconnaissance of the conditions of where you are going to go next,” says Lidwein Kapteijns, who chairs the history department at Wellesley College and writes extensively on Somalia. And, she adds, “Somalis never stay in one place very long.”
Fed up with life in Atlanta _ he was robbed twice _ Abdiaziz Ali said members of the Somali community there researched other places on the Internet, comparing crime rates, the cost of housing, test scores. Then they sent scouts to a handful of cities _ Kansas City, Mo., Nashville, Tenn., San Diego, Houston and El Paso in Texas, and Portland and Lewiston in Maine.
Maine was preferred, and Portland was full.
“These people are very sophisticated,” says Mohammed Maye, president of the African Community & Refugee Center in Clarkston. “They read, they share information, they know state-by-state which state is good for this and which state is good for that. They see the living standard of the people in Maine and the educational level is very high and they say, `Why am I here?”’
The decision to move became even easier after Sept. 11, when many Atlanta-area Somalis who were scraping by in $7-an-hour jobs related to the airport and tourism were thrown out of work.
By last winter, Maye, who has a map of downtown Lewiston on his office wall in Clarkston, was advising folks, especially women and children, “go to Maine.” He opened a part-time office on Lisbon Street.
“Maine is crazy cold,” says Abdullahi Abdullahi, president of the new Somali Community Development Organization in Clarkston. But, he says, “the welfare system is much better.”
Indeed, in moving from Georgia to Maine, Somalis are trading one of the nation’s least generous welfare systems for one of its most generous.
Lewiston provides general assistance to anyone in need, splitting the cost with the state. Such relief was unavailable in Clarkston. In Georgia, there is a four-year time limit for receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. In Maine it’s five, but even that can be extended. About a quarter of Lewiston’s Somali families receive that form of welfare, according to the state. And in Maine, a state-funded program assists single parents while they attend college.
There is a waiting list for public housing in Lewiston, but not nearly as long as back in Georgia. About a third of the more than 90 apartments at Hillview, Lewiston’s largest public housing project, have Somali tenants, and about 35 more Somali families have received Section 8 vouchers, which subsidize the rent on private apartments.
On the first Monday after a new Somali family’s arrival in town, Cheryl Hamilton, a 25-year-old cultural skills trainer who grew up across the river in Auburn, does a welcome-to-Lewiston slide show. On Tuesday, it’s a bus tour.
A city brochure put out in April and titled “Who Are Our New Somali Neighbors?” informs readers in bold print that Somalians are “totally against terrorism” and “take great pride” in providing for their own families.
But many in Lewiston, at least on this last point, remain unconvinced.
Fernand “Frenchy” Langlois owns Frenchy’s barbershop, adjoining the mosque on Lisbon Street. “Give them a chance,” he tells his customers, who converse in a fluid patois of French and English. “Wait two years, then decide.”
Langlois came to Lewiston more than 40 years ago, recruited for mill work from his home in Cornwall, Ontario. He has yet to become an American citizen.
When he arrived, Lewiston was producing a quarter of all American-made textiles. In Auburn it was shoes. But that is all gone. “Then there was more work than there were people,” Langlois says. “Today, there are more people than there is work.”
Lewiston has rebounded with an economy built on health care, banking and other services. But Renee Bernier, the City Council president, says the market for unskilled labor with limited English is gone.
Bernier, who has a security business, says that when she tried to hire 30 Somalis at $8 an hour to hold “stop and slow” signs at road construction sites, the few who showed interest wanted to work only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. She was further irked when some Somalis sought low-interest loans for businesses downtown _ without good credit or a track record _ under an obscure city program.
“How the hell do they find out about this stuff?” she asks.
Like Bernier, Janice Plourde, director of curriculum for the Lewiston schools and widow of the city’s former mayor, believes resentment will grow if the Somalis are not seen as pulling their weight.
“It isn’t about color. It isn’t about diversity. It’s about welfare. It isn’t about anything else,” Plourde says. “The expectation is that everybody works. It’s the theme of the place.”
Fulfilling that expectation is complicated because so many of the Somali families are single mothers and children, the fathers dead, missing, still in Africa or still in Atlanta.
“The men don’t like it here _ it’s too cold or too quiet or too behind,” says Fatuma Hussein, whose own husband still drives a taxi in Atlanta, making frequent visits to her and their three young children. She founded United Somali Women, whose purpose is to teach English, train day care providers and persuade employers to hire Somali women.
When Mohammed Abdi arrived in the United States he was resettled by Catholic Charities north of Atlanta in what he termed a war zone between Vietnamese and Mexican gangs, with no Somalis in sight. He moved to Decatur and others of his wife’s family joined them.
“She was like a queen surrounded by family,” says Abdi, who resumed work abroad for Save the Children in refugee and disaster relief. On returning from an earthquake in India last year, he discovered that his family was moving to Lewiston the very next day, following the flight of others.
“The first impression the first morning I drove in here was like, `What on earth, where on earth is this place?”’ Abdi recalls thinking. “How did they end up here? Who found this place?”
Lewiston’s first Somali was Awil Odowa Bile, now the president of Somali Community Services, the city’s first Somali organization.
Bile, a customs officer in Somalia, had spent nearly a decade in a refugee camp in Nairobi when he learned that he was being let into the United States. When he started to make inquiries in the camp he was told, “Our countrymen have moved to a small state in the north named Maine, a peaceful place.”
After being resettled in Pittsburgh, Bile moved to Portland but found it full. He, his wife and six children spent four months in a shelter before officials in Lewiston invited them to come live there, where housing was still available.
And, as Abdi says, word spreads quickly among Somalis. “Everybody talks to everybody. They call each other. They ask questions.”
Abdi warmed to Lewiston within two weeks of arriving. He liked that his children could play in the park without him or his wife feeling obliged to watch them. He liked seeing the same police cruiser with the same cop in it eight times a day.
Says Abdiaziz Ali, “It was a sleepy town before. We light the city a little bit.”
On a recent glorious summer evening, Kennedy Park in the city’s heart, its long verdant field bounded by church spires, city buildings and tenements, was alight with odd and beautiful juxtapositions.
At one end, near the Civil War statue and the Victorian bandstand, a small older white man in a gray suit led a holy roller revival. “There’s only two places that people are going to end up with and that’s heaven and hell, heaven and hell, no ifs, ands or buts.”
On the other side, Muslim women, Somalis in bright long robes and head scarves of lavender, green, red and yellow, sat on the grass while others pushed small children with joyful abandon to the musical squeaking of the swings and the rhythm of young Somali men playing basketball on the nearby courts. From the distance the holy rollers sang out, “Joy, joy, in my Father’s house.”
That Saturday night is the first Somali wedding in Lewiston. A Somali woman living at Hillview has arranged the marriage of her brother from California and a cousin just arrived from Africa.
For the engagement ceremony, the men gather in a beautifully decorated basement _ each man’s arrival announced by the eager trilling of the women upstairs _ to seal the deal, hear instructions for the husband recited from the Quran, and share cookies, tea, goat meat and bread. The men talk about their children, lamenting how some of the younger ones cannot speak Somali. “TV and school,” says one, explaining.
Afterward, on the way to the mosque for another meal of celebration, Abdi tells his teenage son, who has just witnessed the ceremony, that this is how Somalis marry. He pauses, then tells his son it is also possible that he could choose the right mate.
The Somali migration to Lewiston has not been without a few incidents of anger, name-calling and fights. One man put a sign on his lawn expressing his displeasure with their presence. That angered Kaileigh Tara, who was mayor when the Somalis first started arriving.
“It blows my mind that they can’t connect the dots, that to sit here in their little world and say, `We don’t want these other people here, the rest of the world can take care of itself,’ that that’s why we were attacked on Sept. 11, that that’s how we get airplanes slamming into buildings,” Tara says.
But, in the spirit of the sahan, Abdiaziz Ali figures if the mood sours or if Somalis keep coming and Lewiston, like Portland before it, fills to overflowing, they will simply move on to the next city or town, to Augusta or Bath.
He is not worried. “We can spread out,” he says, “anywhere we want.”