A lesson in allaying immigrant tensions

Residents of Lewiston, Maine, tried to capitalize on strengths.

Two years ago, not a few heads turned when a handful of African women with brilliantly colored head scarves appeared in this small city carved out of the Maine pine forests. Before long, hundreds of Somali immigrants had flocked to Lewiston.

Tensions surfaced. Last fall, Lewiston's mayor urged Somalis to dissuade others from joining them. Then an out-of-state white supremacist group came to town.

But now, thanks to a grass-roots response, the city is rebounding. While some reservations and hostilities linger, the townsfolk have rallied around several key efforts: campaigns to educate the ethnic groups about one another, programs that target specific needs such as language skills, and, perhaps most important, smaller cultural gestures, like culinary exchanges.

Indeed, Lewiston is one example of how a community can work through immigrant tensions and become a more vibrant place to live. "Immigrants are breathing life into sleepy towns across the country," says Stanton Wortham, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Throughout the US, immigrants are heading to old industrial cities and rural towns, in many cases bypassing historic welcome centers such as New York City or Los Angeles. They are drawn to cheaper housing, safer streets, and better schools.

Many city leaders, desperate to reverse negative population trends, see an opportunity with influxes of immigrants. And while making a community multicultural can cause growing pains, the very lack of experience with diversity can offer an opportunity to build relationships on a clean slate.

"The entrenched power battles in urban settings" aren't usually found in small-town America, says Mr. Wortham.

Lewiston was the epitome of industrial USA some 100 years ago, when French-Canadians came in droves to work in the textile mills along the Androscoggin River. When the mills shut down, however, newcomers stopped coming.

Yet fast-forward to 2001, when the first Somalis - the majority of whom had initially been resettled as refugees in Atlanta or Minneapolis - arrived in Lewiston. Over the next year, their number would grow to 1,100.

Kader Said was among the first to arrive, after relocating from Chicago. "At first they looked at you like you were a stranger," he says, but feeling like an outsider was a small price to pay. Chicago was too big, and the single father worried that his teenage children would get wrapped up in gangs or drugs. "Lewiston was more manageable. Somalis take care of each other here."

Frenchy Langlois was one resident taken off guard. On the way to open his barbershop last winter, Mr. Langlois - a bear of a man - was startled by young people standing in door frames in the first rays of morning. "I didn't know what was going on. I thought something bad was going to happen," he says. He learned later they were waiting for the mosque - an abandoned store - to open. "Now those same people are my customers."

City administrators, social workers, and volunteers spearheaded efforts to stymie misunderstandings. Stopping rumors - that all Somalis get free cars, or that Somalis keep chickens in their cupboards - was a priority, says Cheryl Hamilton of the Portland-Lewiston Refugee Collaborative. Fact and myth pages were run in the local paper and hung at local hospitals.

Lewiston has a low unemployment rate at 4.4 percent. But the area is far from wealthy. Fifteen percent live in poverty. Many worried that property taxes, among the highest in the state, would go up. They also worried that Somalis would overwhelm the school system and depress wages.

Under the leadership of assistant city administrator Phil Nadeau, forums were held for residents to air concerns. Local college students were recruited to teach English. Job-skills workshops were funded.

By the time the white-supremacist rally convened on Jan. 11 this year, thousands counterrallied in support of diversity. "That was really a turning point, to see that people were in favor of us being here," says Said Mohamud, who relocated to Maine last fall with his wife and seven children.

Now city leaders are looking for ways to incorporate the Somali community - of whom 50 percent are unemployed - into the economy. "We see this as a huge potential," says Paul Badeau, marketing director for Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth. "They can fill jobs, buy homes, and spend money here.... The Somalis are young families, and very hard-working people."

Already Somali entrepreneurs have opened up halal supermarkets and clothing stores. The Red Sea restaurant opened last month, and on a recent afternoon, local residents and Somalis tried lamb and chicken curry dishes.

It's a landscape that James Tierney, a former Maine attorney general, says is crucial to the state's survival. While mayors and governors elsewhere have actively recruited immigrants, he feels Maine is lagging behind. "I look at Maine and see an old, white, aging state," he says. "I know it's a threatening message: 'You'll look better if you look different.' But it needs to be said. Otherwise we are on a one-way street to nowhere."

The tide of Somalis here has ebbed, but some 10 per month continue to arrive, and integration is still a work in progress.

For now, it's the small gestures that make the biggest differences, such as Langlois sampling a curry dish at the Red Sea restaurant - even if he says he probably won't be back. "I like hamburgers."

Part 1 of this series ran Aug. 5.

[Editor's note: The original version had an incorrect staffline.]

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