When nomadic herdsmen in the arid plains of Somalia need fresh water and green pastures for their herds, they rely on an ancient tradition called sahan. The elders send young men on scouting missions,
sometimes lasting a week or longer, to locate rain clouds and lightning on the horizon. Then, with evidence of water ahead, the scouts lead their people and the herds to their next home.
Three years ago, an American version of sahan led hundreds of Somali refugees from Atlanta to the sleepy, frozen former mill town of Lewiston, Maine. “The elders in Atlanta sat down and said, ‘This is not working for us; we have to do sahan,'” recalls Abdiaziz Ali, 33, lanky
and charismatic with a tidy mustache and toothy grin. The concept behind sahan, Ali explains, is that “you don’t go somewhere with your family without knowing what’s lying ahead. You don’t want your children to be slaughtered.”
Sahan wasn’t an option for Somalis who became refugees after fleeing famine, torture, and violence during the civil war that wrecked their country in the 1980s. After years in squalid refugee camps, some of them were brought to America by refugee agencies and resettled
in Atlanta, Columbus, Memphis, and other cities. But many Somalis, who are Muslim and tend to have traditional, tight-knit families, found American urban life too violent, too drug-ridden, too
infused with consumer culture.
“Our children started changing there,” says Ali, who spent eight years in Georgia before moving with his wife and five children to Lewiston almost three years ago. “They started dressing differently, shaking their heads, listening to rap music.” Ali — who favors
business suits, requires his children to speak Somali at home, and, like most Somali parents, forbids dating — was robbed twice in Atlanta and his brother was shot in the leg during another robbery. He tells me this while sipping a Coke in a small downtown Lewiston luncheonette on a wintry afternoon. A block away is City Hall, where he was hired as an immigrant caseworker — Lewiston’s first Somali employee — four days after arriving in town in 2001. He quickly became a spokesman
and tour guide for new Somalis, introducing them to the city’s plentiful low-cost housing and the area’s somewhat less abundant job opportunities.
Ali remembers the March day he first set foot in Lewiston. Snow covered the ground. The streets were quiet. The buildings looked old and worn. The sun was hidden behind the clouds. “I thought, ‘What is this? The town seems strange. And the snow stinks. I’ll never get
used to the snow.'”
But there were considerations other than weather when Somali elders
met one night in late 2000 in a three-bedroom Atlanta apartment to devise a sahan plan that would
merge the age-old practice with the modern conveniences of air travel, the Internet, and cell phones.
Groups of Somalis headed out in every direction—to Kansas City; San Diego; Portland, Maine;
Dearborn, Michigan—in search of the right home for their community. On the Internet
they learned that Maine’s crime rate was favorably low—the state ranked 46th in the nation
in overall crime while Georgia was 13th. But the only Maine city with a sizable immigrant population
was Portland, where low-income housing was scarce and “the post office had ‘Wanted’ posters for
sex offenders,” says Ali. So the Somalis headed 45 minutes north on I-95 to Lewiston, a town
of 36,000 with good schools and affordable housing. A few refugees had already settled there, after
being relocated from a Portland homeless shelter to Hillview, a Lewiston housing project
with clean, if basic, three- and four-bedroom townhouse apartments three miles from downtown.
“I remember seeing one of the apartments,” says Fatuma Hussein, a mother of four who now runs a Somali
women’s organization in Lewiston. “They were better and nicer than Portland.”
Soon, word about Lewiston traveled to Atlanta and to New Orleans. It
spread to Nashville and to Chicago. A Somali website, www.hiiraan.com, posted articles about
the town, and the news even reached the refugee camps in Kenya. By the summer of 2002, 40 to 50 Somalis
were arriving in Lewiston every month; today, about 1,200 Somalis call the town home. And while
Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Columbus have much larger Somali communities, no other small city has
seen as big an influx of Somalis migrating from other cities.
In many ways, these newcomers are exactly what the city needs. Lewiston
lost 10 percent of its population between 1990 and 2000; officials predict that by 2025 Maine’s
population could be the oldest of any state in the nation, a trend that doesn’t bode well for attracting
businesses to the state. “No one wants to talk about the fact that the kids are gone and aren’t coming
back,” says James Tierney, a former state attorney general. “If people find their way to
us, then we need to welcome them and help them.”
But Lewiston’s welcome for the Somalis was a decidedly mixed one. Less
than a year after their arrival, residents began complaining to City Hall about the number of Somalis
on welfare and the effect on the city budget. National white-suprem- acist organizations highlighted
Lewiston as an example of the failure of U.S. immigration pol-icies. Then, in October 2002, Mayor
Laurier T. Raymond wrote an open letter to the Somali community, asking them to discourage future
arrivals. “We have been overwhelmed and have responded valiantly,” he wrote. “Now we need breathing
room. Our city is maxed out financially, physically and emotionally.”
The letter angered Somalis, some of whom accused the may- or of racism
and asked him to apologize, and it drew national media attention. (The mayor, who later said he never
meant to cause harm, no longer talks to reporters about the issue.) And for a while at least, it looked
like this small, tranquil city might not be a haven for Somalis after all.
IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME since Lewiston was an immigrant destination. “In
Maine, some people consider you an outsider if you’re from Massachusetts,” says Phil Nadeau, Lewiston’s
assistant city administrator and the city’s point person for the Somali community. Before the
Somalis, the last major wave of immigrants was French Canadians, who arrived by the thousands between
1860 and 1930 to fill the mill jobs—textiles in Lewiston, shoe manufacturing across the
river in Auburn. The Franco-American culture is still woven into this city where multigenerational
families go to memere’s (grandmother’s) house for Sunday dinner and to French Mass on Saturdays
at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, whose gray Gothic spires compete with City Hall on the downtown
skyline. Franco names like Labonte, Cote, and Ouellette fill the Lewiston phone book. And the elderly
chat in French during Tuesday afternoon bingo at Holy Family Church and when they stop in at Frenchy’s
barbershop for a haircut and a shave.
Yet like so many New En-gland mill towns, downtown Lewiston feels tired
and cheerless. The Bates Mill, a red-brick behemoth that looms over Lewiston as a constant reminder
of the city’s past, has been renovated into commercial and of-fice space, and there are similar
plans for other abandoned mills that sit along the Androscoggin River. But downtown also includes
the poorest census tract in all of Maine; the 2000 census found about 15 percent of Lewiston residents
living in pov- erty. The housing stock remains old and uniform—unadorned three- and four-story
clapboard tenements, some with bedsheets for curtains. On Lisbon Street, once downtown’s main
commercial avenue, boarded-up storefronts sit next to adult bookstores and darkened bars. “It’s
been like this forever—they either open and shut or haven’t opened at all in 10 or 20 years,”
says Cheryl Hamilton, who grew up across the river in Au- burn. “Ames shut down last year. Bradlee’s
shut down. Downtown seems sad.”
Against this background, the Somalis could hardly have painted a starker
contrast. Wom-en wearing head scarves and flowing gowns of red and blue and gold began appearing
in checkout lines at the local Wal-Mart and the Stop & Shop, their carts piled high with food
and toilet paper, trash bags and diapers. (Somali families tend to pool resources and buy several
weeks’ worth of groceries at a time.) Families with five or six children and Section 8 housing vouchers
began moving into long-vacant downtown housing. Outside Lewiston’s first mosque, in a
storefront on Lisbon Street, Somali men in button-down shirts, jeans, and leather jackets gathered
to talk and smoke cigarettes. And at the A & R Halal shop on Bartlett Street, 33-year-old Roda
Abdi offered her customers goat meat slaughtered according to Muslim law, along with henna to decorate
women’s hands and all the ingredients—white cornmeal, rice, curry, cumin, lentils—for
lamb curry, sambusa, and other Somali dishes.
In some ways, Maine seemed a wholly unlikely destination for these immigrants.
Maine is the whitest state in the country; minorities make up less than 4 percent of its population,
according to the 2000 census. And before the Somalis arrived, Lewiston had a mere 383 black residents
among its total population of 35,000. “We’d seen white people, of course,” Ali says with a laugh,
“but this was different. There were so many of them!” Still, the Somalis were attracted by many of
the same things that Mainers love about their state—small communities, good schools, safe
neighborhoods. “We can walk to the grocery store; we can let the kids play in the playground,” says
Garaad Dees, who moved his family here from New Orleans two years ago. “We’re used to small towns.
And we like being together, so we follow each other.”
For refugees like Awil Bile, Lewiston is an ideal new home. Bile lost
all his possessions during the civil war, and his father was killed. His family spent 10 years in
Kenyan refugee camps, where tents and huts served as homes, and violence and rape were not uncommon.
Five of Bile’s six children were born in the camps. “I had 10 years without hope,” he says in halting
English, smoking a cigarette in front of a storefront in downtown Lewiston. “It’s very good
here; it’s peaceful.”
In the beginning, Lewiston residents weren’t altogether sure what
to make of the newcomers. Frenchy Langlois is a kindly 68-year-old Franco with a lingering accent
from his Cornwall, Ontario, home. He came to Maine 45 years ago to work in the mills and for the past
40 years has owned Frenchy’s, a one-chair barbershop in downtown Lewiston. Early one morning last
winter, he saw several Somalis huddled in a doorway two doors from his shop. “I didn’t know what they
were doing and I was a little concerned,” he says. “It was a little different, you know.” It turns
out the Somalis were waiting for the mosque to open for morning prayers. And now Langlois counts
Somalis among his customers.
Other residents, many of whom were worried about the impact of immigration
on the city’s already stretched resources, weren’t so welcoming. Many of the adults didn’t speak
English, and Lewiston’s adult ESL program more than quadrupled during the first year of the Somali
influx. Volunteer teachers set up makeshift classes in the building’s stairwell, in the hallway,
and among the bench presses and barbells in a weight room. “You couldn’t walk through the hallway,”
says Anne Kemper, the head of the ESL program, which now has more than 200 students, most of them Somali.
“It was a very stressful time and the most exciting time I can remember in this city.” In the school
district, too, the number of ESL students ballooned, rising from 40 to 243 between
2001 and 2002 and requiring the district to hire five new assistant teachers.
All of these changes, of course, cost money, some of which has been offset
by federal grants for immigrant services. But the most immediate, and most controversial, costs
were local welfare expenditures, which escalated in part because many Somali families are headed
by single mothers who lost husbands during the war.
“The Somalis have everything handed to them,” a 29-year-old man named
Derek, with a scruffy beard and a baseball cap tilted back on his head, told me as we sat in adjoining
booths at a popular local diner called The Governor’s. “They get welfare even when they work, and
I’m getting $200 in taxes taken out.” Derek offered up some of the other local myths about the Somalis—legends
that City Hall, the Lewiston school district, and the local newspaper have all tried to dispel: The
refugees get brand-new cars from the state (“How else could they afford them?”); the city
gives each Somali family $10,000 in cash; Somali kids wash their feet in the Lewiston High School
drinking fountains and have special classrooms for their daily prayers; Somalis tear out the kitchen
cabinets in their apartments and replace them with chicken coops.I heard some of the same
tales from James Teehan, a 34-year-old flooring contractor with a crew cut and a goatee who for six
months posted a handmade plywood sign in his yard that read, in part: “Call all elected officials.
Tell them we will not feed foreigners before we feed vets and the homeless.” The solution,
Teehan says, is to deport the refugees.
There’s been a tendency to blame Somalis for problems that existed long
before the refugees arrived, says Cheryl Hamilton, who until recently worked for the Portland/Lewiston
Refugee Collaborative Program. “It’s not the Somalis’ fault that there’s an economic downturn
and a lack of jobs,” she says. “They’ve just awakened us to the issues.” The most significant of these
issues has been employment; about 50 percent of Lewiston’s Somali residents remain unemployed.
L.L. Bean has reached out to the community, employing Somalis in one of its warehouses; a printing
press, a telemarketing company, and hotels in nearby cities have also hired the refugees. But other
companies have been reluctant to accommodate their prayer schedule and language barriers. In
Atlanta and other cities, companies found ways to work with non-English speakers by hiring team
leaders who translate for the other workers. But in Maine, “companies aren’t as open as they could
be,” says Hussein Ahmed, a caseworker at Lewiston’s Career Center, a state-run job agency.
“There’s still a lot more that can happen.”
The hurdles confronting immigrants have, at times, led some Somalis
to rethink their migration to Lewiston. “They look at you here like they’ve never seen a black person,”
a Somali mother says. “In Wal-Mart, a woman told me, ‘Go back to your country.’ I said, ‘You go back.’
And people ask how I got my car. I worked for it. In Atlanta, folks were my color. I wasn’t scared like
I am here.”
ON JANUARY 11, 2003, police snipers lay on the rooftops of buildings
surrounding the Lewiston Armory. Rows of police with plastic shields and German shepherds encircled
the building. Around 1 p.m., a handful of members of the World Church of the Creator, looking like
clean-cut, nebbishy schoolboys, were whisked into the Armory.
The World Church of the Creator, recently renamed The Creativity Movement,
is a white-supremacist organization based in Wyoming, and after learning about the tensions brewing
in Lewiston in the fall of 2002, the group’s leader, Matt Hale, decided that Lewiston needed his
help. “I want to rally the white people of Lewiston for their own interests, and those interests
do not tolerate the invasion of Somalis in their city,” Hale told one newspaper. “The Somalis
are unwelcome there, and they shouldn’t be there.”
But the event was more like a badly prepared and poorly attended lecture
than a rally, as speakers rambled on not about the Somalis, but about the Jews running the world.
Fewer than four dozen of Hale’s supporters showed up for the event. All the other attendees were
protesters—most of them college-aged kids who wore black bandannas across their faces
and chanted anti-racism slogans alongside middle-aged activists shouting “Nazi scum, go to hell”
and “We’re here. We’re queer. We’re going to beat the fascists.”As it turned out, the bigger story
that day was a “diversity rally” held across town at Bates College, called by local church and civic
leaders to support the Somali community. The rally drew an estimated 4,000 participants—students,
politicians, local Somalis, and people from throughout New England. The city hailed the event
as a turning point.
And in many ways, it was. The media headed home. The phones at City Hall
rang less frequently. Still, refugee worker Cheryl Hamilton wonders how much people’s minds have
really changed. “The mayor acts like we’re okay now,” says the 26-year-old. “But we have to be careful.
I go out with my friends on Friday night and they still say things like, ‘The Somalis shouldn’t be
For more than 20 years, Lavinia Limon, executive director of the U.S.
Committee for Refugees, has seen cities like Lewiston struggle with immigrant and refugee influx-es.
“I feel great compassion for both sides in Lewiston,” says Limon, who headed the Office of
Refugee Resettlement under the Clinton administration. “Everyone is being asked to do a lot, and
they don’t have all the tools. Some of it’s going to cost money for Lewiston and Maine, but there’s
also going to be a real return on those costs.” She’s witnessed the upside of these migrations, too,
as immigrants revitalize dying communities: the Bosnians in Utica, New York; the Vietnamese in
Los Angeles’ Chinatown; the Hmong in Fresno, California. “It takes time—sometimes an entire
generation,” she says. “But it happens.”
And the evidence that Somalis are making a positive impact on Lewiston
is trickling in. Every decade since 1960, the town lost population as young people moved away. But
by the 2010 census, Lewiston expects to be one of the few cities in Maine whose population is growing.
Somalis are shopping, paying taxes, and buying property. And those same Somali students who streamed
into the ESL program have also pushed up local school enrollment, which translates into increased
federal and state funding.
Even downtown is changing. Somali businessmen have opened a new restaurant
called The Red Sea. There’s a new clothing store called World Fashion that features head scarves
and long gowns, along with Baby Phat clothes and NBA jerseys. And this spring, across from Frenchy’s,
entrepreneur Garaad Dees will debut a restaurant and convenience store at the former location
of Simon’s Variety Store.
Somali immigrants still arrive in Lewiston—usually two or three
families a week. And the exodus that some predicted following the mayor’s letter and the white-supremacist
rally has never materialized. Instead, many Somalis are concentrating on settling in.
“People are planning to buy houses here,” says Ali. “It’s not as easy to be a nomad when you have an
apartment full of furniture and things.”