The New Mainers: Somalis are latest wave of immigrants
(from Maine Townsman, December 2002)
by Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

       When the first wave of refugees from Somalia, an East African nation in chaos since 1991, began arriving in Portland around 1998, they occasioned interest but little controversy.

       Gerald Cayer, the city’s Human Services director, said Portland had long been established as “the gateway to Maine” for political refugees and others fleeing upheaval abroad. As far back as the Vietnam War, Portland has welcomed the homeless and stateless, and they have become an increasing part of its identity as perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the Northeast.

       When Somalis appeared in Lewiston in numbers in February 2001, it was a different story. This mill town in transition, seeking new uses for the enormous textile mills that were built in the late 1800’s, was settled by French Canadian and Irish immigrants, but had not seen a major surge of immigration in generations. By the spring of 2002, tensions were rising. Nearly 1,000 Somalis were living in Lewiston, many of them downtown, giving a new look to faded thoroughfares like Lisbon Street but also occasioning fear and resentment.

       By April, stories about the “Somali surge” were appearing in newspapers around the country. In May, a community forum sponsored by the city attracted 500 people to the Lewiston Armory. It included an impassioned plea from a Somali speaker to “accept me as a citizen of Maine also” and support from several local residents, but also some angry remarks. One speaker called for a moratorium on immigration, while another said pointedly, “Let’s take care of our own.”

       Things reached a flashpoint in October when Lewiston’s mayor, Larry Raymond, wrote a letter to Somali leaders saying, “The large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative consequences for all. The Somali community must exercise some discipline and reduce the stress on our limited finances and generosity.”

       A torrent of national and even international coverage followed, most of it sharply critical of Lewiston. The furor also attracted the attention of white supremacist groups from away, one of which tried to recruit members in the area, while another announced plans for a rally at the armory in January.

       In all the hubbub, a number of points were quickly obscured. One was that the mayor had acted on his own, without the knowledge of the rest of the city council. Another was that an estimated 1,100 Somalis were in Lewiston by the end of 2001 with few, if any, significant confrontations. City officials were at pains to point out that when they apply for general assistance or other benefits, Somalis are treated just like any other citizen. And while news coverage has created the impression that an entire Somali community was transferring from the Atlanta area to Lewiston, the new arrivals in fact came from all over the country, including Columbus, Ohio, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Portland (Oregon) and New Orleans.

       Phil Nadeau, the assistant city manager and Human Services director, became Lewiston’s principal spokesman after Mayor Raymond decided to withdraw from the public debate. Nadeau made a thorough study of the identifiable costs of the influx, and found that $382,000 from a city budget of $70 million — $40 million raised locally – was spent to aid the Somalis in the previous year, chiefly for general assistance and second language programs in the Lewiston school system.

       Lewiston has a high tax rate, $24 per thousand, and the downtown revival has just begun to show results in terms of producing tax revenue. Nadeau said he understands why the mayor “felt compelled to write that letter,” and said the amount of time required for city employees to process applications did place a strain on staffing. “Every dollar we spend is carefully scrutinized,” he said, but it’s also clear that “this isn’t having an enormous impact on the budget or the tax rate.”

A Missing Link

       What may have been missed, said Cayer, who works for Portland but is a native of Lewiston, is that Maine’s second largest city was seen as an attractive place to live by large numbers of people who had no previous acquaintance with it.

       “I think Lewiston performed admirably,” he said, speaking of his city counterparts and those in the school system. “They did a good job. On the other hand, were they completely prepared? I’d have to say no.”

       From the headlines and television news, you would never guess that while there are 1,100 Somalis in Lewiston, a city of 35,000, there are at least a proportional number in Portland – about 2,400, in a city of 64,000.

       The difference, in large part, is that the Somalis were at least the third large group of international settlers to arrive in Portland. After the Southeast Asian immigration of the 1970s, another wave from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union began in the early 1990s, shortly after Cayer began working in Portland.

       From the city’s point of view, the timing couldn’t have been better. “The economy was bad, storefronts and apartments were vacant, and there was plenty of capacity,” he said. Landlords were more than happy to rent to natives of Latvia, Lithuania and Byelorussia, countries they may not have heard of a few months earlier.

       At first, there was room for the Somalis, too. However, by 2000 Portland’s latest economic boom and an absence of new apartment construction was producing an affordable housing crisis. The vacancy rate dropped to 1 percent and “you couldn’t find an apartment at a rent the average family could afford,” Cayer said.

From Portland to Lewiston

       Nadeau recalls getting a call from Portland City Hall asking whether, with its vacant downtown apartments, Lewiston landlords might appreciate referrals. “We wanted to be good neighbors, of course,” he said. No one anticipated just how popular a destination Lewiston would soon become.

       There are reasons why, in fact, a large number of refugees might place a strain on a small city like Lewiston. “These are homeless people, most of whom don’t know English,” Nadeau. “They’re different from other immigrants in that most of them will need general assistance, at least initially.”

       When refugees are resettled through State Department programs or those run by private charities, federal funding comes with them. But none of the Somalis in Lewiston had been resettled directly. They all came from other points in the United States.

       In recent months, new federal grants totaling $700,000 have been awarded to Lewiston, in recognition that it faced an unusual situation. “In this country, people can move anywhere they like,” Nadeau said. “That’s one of the things that we’ve had to try hard to get people to understand.”

       Cayer takes an unconventional view of the general assistance spending cities like Portland and Lewiston do, half of which is reimbursed by the state (90% after a threshold is reached) . “I call it economic development funding,” he said. “With most of the refugees, we make payments for two months. After that we never see them again. They’re working and paying taxes in the community.”

       Lewiston’s economic development director, Jim Andrews, who oversees housing programs, paints a similar picture. Seeing the Somalis’ arrival from the point of view of the downtown development, “there are no negatives. This is a very positive situation.”

       Two years earlier, Lewiston had decided to get serious about removing some of the dilapidated downtown housing, much of it century-old four- and five-story tenements. Some 5,000 people had once worked in the mills, and at that point, only a few hundred jobs were left.

       The vacant buildings were depressing the rental market, and some were too far gone to be renovated. More than 100 buildings were removed, which began to reduce a vacancy rate some had estimated at as high as 30 percent, but was actually 15 percent, considering only rentable space, Andrews said.

       Shortly after, the first Somalis arrived, and the vacancy rate is now down to 4-6 percent, about optimal. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment has gone from $300, including heat, to about $425 – still affordable, particularly by comparison to Portland.

       In addition to the demolitions, Lewiston has a $1.2 million federal grant to remove lead paint, and low-interest loans for other repairs. With the new demand for housing, there’s a surge of interest from landlords. “It used to be we didn’t have any takers. Now, there are 25 or 30 applications on my desk,” Andrews said.

       The first Somali businesses have begun opening on Lisbon Street, and city officials expect the number to grow.

       Public housing did not see the same kind of vacancies, but Jim Dowling, executive director of the Lewiston Housing Authority, said that numerous Somalis are now living in city-owned apartments. Among the most popular has been the Hillview complex on Sabbatus Street, about three miles from downtown, which was built in the 1970s and features larger apartments than those built subsequently. About a third of the residents are Somalis. The relatively rural setting is also an attraction.

       Dowling said there have been few complaints or conflicts among apartment residents. Phil Nadeau said that’s also true for police. Of calls over the past year, a disproportionately small number have involved Somali residents, he said.

       Where Somalis have appeared in numbers is in the school system. About 115 are students at Lewiston High School. In Portland, nearly 1,000 students K-12 are recent immigrants, most of them Somalis.

       “In many ways, these are the young families we’ve been looking for to counter the aging population we hear so much about,” said Cayer. For the future, he thinks public transportation between the cities might be feasible. Portland has more jobs, while Lewiston has more affordable housing. “We’d like to be partners in helping both cities grow,” he said.

       Cayer would also encourage Lewiston to follow Portland’s example in hiring some of the new residents. Many members of his 430-person department (includes city-owned Barron Center nursing home) are non-native speakers, which can ease language and cultural barriers in providing assistance to the public.

From Resistance to Recruitment

       The January rally planned by white supremacists will be matched by a counter-rally for tolerance, organized by a broad spectrum of community groups, which they believe will attract a much larger number of participants from around the area.

       Ironically, the flow of Somalis to Lewiston had subsided before the mayor’s letter was written. From a peak of 50 a month, new applications for public assistance have dropped to about 15, Nadeau said. Predictions of thousands of new residents, flowing up I-95 to Augusta and Waterville, have not materialized, at least so far.

       The lagging economy may have something to do with that, and Cayer says that Augusta and Waterville, which, like Lewiston, lost a sizable chunk of their population during the 1990s, may want to start thinking about what attractions their communities might have for new residents like the Somalis.

       Nadeau said that in recent months he’s heard from officials in all parts of the country, and has been impressed by how many states and cities that have lost jobs and people are actively recruiting immigrants, much as they once sought big manufacturing companies. From the farm country of Iowa to old Northeastern cities like Schenectady, N.Y., officials are seeking new residents from places like Trinidad and the Dominican Republic. Lowell, Mass. has seen an urban revival fueled in part by massive immigration. About a quarter of the city is now foreign-born, most of them from the Caribbean.

       “Even in Maine, you’d be surprised,” Nadeau said. Milbridge now has a significant Hispanic population, attracted by employment at the local pickle factory.

       While conceding that not everyone has been welcoming, municipal officials seem unanimous in seeing immigration as a positive development for Maine cities and towns. “We all react when we see something that’s unusual and unfamiliar,” Gerry Cayer said. “It’s no different anywhere. But this country has always been about change and growth. These are new Mainers, and we need to start seeing them that way.”

Seeking a Better Life (sidebar)

       Ismail Ahmed was one of many Somalis who fled the capital of Mogadishu when civil war broke out in 1991. One of 12 children, he ended up in a refugee camp in Kenya two months later, where he was to remain for years. Emigrating to the United States was a possibility that had never occurred to him.

       Life in the camps was hard. Somalis, who are Muslims and often have light skin and straight hair, were unwelcome guests in the black African state of Kenya, and suffered the same kind of racial discrimination present in much of the world.

       “I would leave the camp and look for work in town, but they were always pushing us back,” Ahmed said. “We were always playing a cat and mouse game with the police.”

       His fortunes began to change when he was offered help at a Catholic convent school. Although he was too old to take classes, he was tutored in English and soon became proficient, also learning Swahili, the language of his unwilling hosts. When he decided it was unlikely he’d ever be able to return to Somalia safely, he applied for refugee status with the American consulate.

       Ahmed soon realized his family was too large to emigrate together, so he applied individually. Even so, it was years before he was even considered. Then, in 1999, his visa came through, and he joined a brother in suburban Atlanta, where other Somalis seeking political asylum had been resettled.

       Georgia’s economy was booming, and he quickly found work in warehouses, packing CDs and computer parts. Then he was hired by Orkin, the pest control franchiser, which offered higher wages and incentives. While spraying for bugs, he noticed that, displayed in the basements of these middle class homes were diplomas from colleges and universities in New England. “That was when I decided I should go there,” he said.

       Ahmed had been attending community college night classes, but his variable work hours and the notorious Atlanta-area traffic made it difficult to get to class on time. One day in December of last year, he packed up and headed north. “I drove for 22 hours straight,” he said. “I didn’t stop until I got to Boston.”

       After looking over the city, he decided it was too much like Atlanta to suit him. A chance encounter with a Somali taxi driver sent him north again. “He said Portland was a very good place to go to school, but expensive. The taxi driver also told him about “a town that was even smaller, and very rural, called Lewiston.”

       Ahmed arrived in Lewiston knowing no one, but within a few days had found two friends who shared their apartment with him, and he enrolled at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College.

       He worked full-time as a telemarketer, but found it difficult to complete the 10-hour shifts and keep up with his studies. He’s now been approved for a work-study program that will offer him a job on campus while studying full-time in the leadership and organizational studies program. Initially, he was enrolled in the bachelor’s degree program but, now that the college has been able to analyze his far-flung transcript, it appears he’ll be placed in the master’s program.

       In the suburbs of Georgia, “I did not have the chance to meet many people” in an informal way, he said, but Lewiston was different. “It was my first time in a downtown. It’s the most natural setting to rub shoulders. I’d meet a lot of people at the bus stop. They were very down to earth, and very talkative and friendly” once they realized he was fluent in English.

       Still, there’s no question he stood out. “It’s a complicated thing, seeing us as both black and Muslim. No one here knows anything about the differences with other Africans.” And after Sept. 11, few knew that Somali Muslims have no connection with either the Middle East or the fundamentalist sects that have produced anti-Western terrorism.

       Ahmed has been yelled at from apartment windows to “go home” and had people in passing cars call him “monkey.” Most of his experiences suggest these are not typical attitudes, though: “At the college, and with any of the service providers, they couldn’t be more welcoming.”

       But he has come to understand that “in America, race is still a big issue. That’s not what you expect when you read about what the country stands for.”

            After just a year in Lewiston, it feels like home. Ahmed is looking forward to reuniting soon with his wife, who he met and married in Kenya, and his two small children. Once he finishes his degree he may have to look farther afield, perhaps to the Boston area, to find a good job in his chosen field of conflict resolution, though he’d prefer to stay here. He said, “I know I’ll be in New England for a long, long time.”