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Culture Collision Brews in Maine

The arrival in Lewiston of 1,500 Somali refugees in 18 months has the city straining to provide social services and maintain civic harmony.

October 20, 2002|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

LEWISTON, Maine — In the park near City Hall, Abdullah Ibrahim kicked a soccer ball with his 9-year-old daughter. As the ball spun across crisp autumn leaves, Ibrahim's mind whirled. At Yasmin's age, he realized, he had no idea where -- or even what -- Maine was.

"Maybe I knew what America was," Ibrahim said. "Maybe. I am not so sure." But now the 44-year-old computer technology student is one of more than 1,500 Somali refugees to arrive in this fading industrial city about 30 miles north of Portland. The large influx of families -- most of them Muslim -- from East Africa came swiftly, in just 18 months. For longtime residents and newcomers alike, the sudden population shift has brought a sense of mutual culture shock.

"There is a difference of traditions, a difference of religion, a difference of color, a difference of language -- so many things," Ibrahim said as Yasmin, in her Muslim headpiece, rushed off to play on the jungle gym. "It is culturally confusing, of course."

Sometimes wary, sometimes welcoming, this community of 36,000 -- where some residents still identify themselves as being French or Irish -- has struggled to provide services and to maintain civic harmony.

Mutual skepticism and curiosity gave way to controversy when the mayor announced this month that the Somalis were draining Lewiston of its financial and emotional resources. Although tensions eased somewhat after a City Hall meeting with Somali leaders Oct. 11, Lewiston's melting pot continued to simmer.

Mayor Larry Raymond referred questions to Assistant City Administrator Phil Nadeau, who called Lewiston's adjustment to the immigrants "nothing short of miraculous." Nadeau said he has spent much of the last year coordinating efforts among 18 agencies detailed to help the Somalis, while ordinary concerns such as potholes and barking dogs have assumed distant spots on his priority list.

Nadeau faulted U.S. policymakers for leaving Lewiston with a host of problems. He said most of the Somalis are "second-wave" immigrants -- families who have been in the U.S. more than a year, thus exhausting refugee resettlement benefits. They fled a poor, agro-pastoral country, racked by civil war, where the literacy rate is around 30%. Most first settled near Atlanta, but high crime and worries about drugs and prostitution drove them to Maine -- known for decent schools, a low crime rate and long, frigid winters.

Job skills were minimal among the new residents, and bias ran high, Nadeau said, recalling that some employers admitted that they were suspicious of Muslims after last year's terrorist attacks. Displaying what Nadeau called "naive ignorance," some business owners said they could not afford to hire workers who pause to pray five times a day.

Cultural conflicts sometimes arose in the workplace, Nadeau said, recounting that one Somali worker faced off with a boss who crooked a finger to summon him to a meeting. In Somalia, the worker said, that gesture is reserved for calling dogs.

Eighteen months after the first refugees showed up, 50% of the adult Somalis in Lewiston are employed, Nadeau said, "but that means 50% are not." Some here saw the immigrants' high unemployment rate as a cue for criticism. False rumors circulated that the refugees were all getting free cars, or that City Hall was buying them new automobile transmissions.

"I'd like to know why they came here anyway. All they want is the handout," said Jim Packard, dining on his daily frankfurter at Simone's "World Famous" hot dog restaurant. "They don't want to work. They come here, they get this, they get that. Well, I work. I don't get any of those things."

At Big D's lounge, a dark and smoky bar, owner Don Dube echoed these sentiments. Asserting that Muslim schoolchildren "get more rights than Catholic children, Protestant children, Jewish children," Dube, 67, said the refugees cry discrimination whenever things seem to go against them.

"The Somalians get away with everything here. I get so aggravated," Dube said. "We got landlords in this city who are kicking out our own people to put Somalians in. We're giving them everything, everything they want. Now they're talking about raising our property taxes to cover the budget increases. They're depleting our finances."

In fact, the needs of the new residents caused Lewiston's general assistance budget to double last year, to more than $500,000, Nadeau said. Emergency grants from several sources are expected to bring some fiscal relief.

At a free furniture bank in downtown Lewiston, Dot Treadwell said she doubted that families piling up in apartments built a century ago for mill workers were living in opulence. "A lot of them have two and three families together," she said. "They have big families with lots of children. They come in here, they get a free mattress to put on the floor and they are really appreciative."

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