USA Society

In one town, how Mainers and new immigrants learned to coexist – until Trump

Understanding each other

Somalis in Lewiston, Maine say tensions have reemerged thanks to Trump. But that's eased in part by years of developing local ties – and helping to win the soccer state championship.

Jimmy Simone is the third-generation owner of Simone's Hot Dog Stand, which is a hotbed of political discussion in town. In a nod to the city's influx of Muslim immigrants, the diner started selling pork-free versions of their famous hot dogs.
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As a blizzard whips outside Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston, Maine, inside it is steamy and hot, filled with the smells of African cooking.

This is no typical Northeastern soup kitchen. A refugee family who arrived four days ago from Angola tracks slush across the tile floor, waiting to receive plastic plates piled with spicy hot catfish, fruit salad, and grocery-store cupcakes.

Meanwhile homeless white men sit on old ripped couches, watching a soap opera playing silently on a small TV. Behind them, black women greet one another in Somali while shaking the snow off their hijabs.

In the middle of everything is Aba Abu, clipboard in hand, welcoming everyone with a smile and writing down the names of new visitors.

Ms. Abu also works as a bus driver – while raising two teenagers as a single mother. She is tired. But life is better here than in Atlanta, where the Department of Homeland Security originally settled her. There are locals who help her, along with Lewiston’s 7,000 other Somalis. In Ms. Abu’s 12 years here, she has seen local hostility dissolve into broad acceptance, helped by the Somali kids who propelled the high school soccer team to its first-ever state championship.

But President Trump, who on Monday released a revised travel ban against six Muslim-majority countries including Somalia, has strained some of those relationships. Immigrants and locals alike see signs that their community is sliding back into old attitudes of distrust.

“You see more angry people … especially since Trump came to Maine, and say things he should not have said to the people,” Abu says, as poor Mainers and immigrants mill around the humid church basement waiting for the food. “He said Somalis were taking all your benefits … and they said ‘Oh you know what? We can say what he says, and it’s OK. Cause he is our president.' ”

Then a white homeless man interrupts her to add his two cents about immigrants. “There are just too many of them, we need to send some of them back,” he says. As he walks toward the food, he turns back and smiles, revealing missing front teeth. “No offense, Aba!”

Abu laughs, but her eyes look hurt. “I’ve known him almost 10 years, he’s never said anything like that.… But before [Trump] everything was fine, Maine was fine.”

As Trump’s travel ban and immigrant raids cause tremors across America, this integrated community should represent a best-case scenario for coexistence under President Trump. It is not perfect; tensions and fears have resurfaced, and widened a divide the community had worked hard to close. But while Lewiston’s social fabric may be fraying in places, by and large it’s holding together.

“I wouldn’t say that Lewiston is fabulous, or has done everything right,” says Catherine Besteman, an African studies professor and author of a book on Somali refugees in Lewiston.

Still, she adds, it’s an example of how immigrants, including from the Muslim-majority countries targeted by Trump, have settled into life in America relatively smoothly.

“These small American towns are being transformed quietly without ruckus or violence – they are stories we don’t pay attention to…. When people are screaming and fighting about immigration, they aren’t looking at places like Lewiston and saying, ‘Huh, this is working.’” 

Somalis bring home state championship

To be sure, Lewiston was not perfect before Trump. Of the 10 largest cities in Maine, Lewiston has the lowest per capita income, the second-highest poverty rate, and the smallest high school-educated population. And on Feb. 8, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the Lewiston school system following a two-year investigation that found discipline disparities for children of color.

However, Lewiston High’s soccer coach Mike McGraw says the boys’ soccer team is an example of how far the city has come.

Aba Abu welcomes visitors Trinity Church's food pantry in Lewiston, Maine, where she works as a coordinator – in addition to her second job as a bus driver.
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When Somali refugees first started populating Lewiston in 2001, there were “some touch-and-go years,” says Mr. McGraw. Black and white students rarely interacted and there were frequent “standoffs” in the cafeteria. By 2009, McGraw’s varsity team was 40 percent black. During practice breaks in the August heat, white players would huddle in the shade above the field, and the black players would claim the shade below the field.

“We are just too good not to take advantage of this,” McGraw remembers thinking. So two days into the season he called all the players onto the center of the field during a practice break and gave them assigned seats.

“I just grabbed kids and said, ‘You come sit over here,’ ‘You come sit over here,’” says McGraw, who says he “speckled” them into a mosaic of black and white. “And when I did that I said, ‘Look. You see how we are? This is how we have to play. We have to play together and we have to trust each other.’”

In 2015, the men’s high school soccer team won Lewiston’s first state championship with a starting lineup of black immigrants. Now soccer games are a town-wide event for everyone, says McGraw, with black and white fans cheering together. He remembers forcing players to high-five one another in the hallways, but now the team chooses to spend their weekends together playing video games and ping-pong.

“What they are displayed on the field, and off the field, was a togetherness and unity that grownups needed to see,” he says. “They really want to be accepted. Winning a championship allowed them to say, ‘Look. We can do good things.’”

But McGraw admits there is a new emotional undercurrent in Lewiston since the election that he hasn’t seen for years. On Nov. 9, one of McGraw’s players asked if he was allowed to be at school since Trump won the election – a question that really shook McGraw.

“My team has done so much good for the community,” he says. “[A]nd then after this election it is like we have gone backwards. The attitude toward the travel ban and Muslims has opened the door to people who are narrow-minded.”

'Two contradictory stories’ about immigration’s impact

Between two blocks of Lewiston’s Lisbon Street there is one adult novelty book store, three “For Rent” signs, and seven Halal markets.

Owner Jean-Pierre Tshamala sits behind the counter of one of the markets, shielded by shelves of products that reach the ceiling. He brags about one in particular: his wife’s sambousa, a pastry of beef, onions, and spices. They are so delicious, he says, that 20 white Mainers come in a week to buy them.  

“Locals are really the most important people,” says Muhadin Libah, executive director of the Somali Bantu Community Association (SBCA). “They are the ones listening to us, welcoming us, showing us the way.”

Since the city helped piece together a patchwork of services in the early 2000s, its African community has grown exponentially. Today a local advisory board helps Mr. Libah connect immigrants with government assistance, and he helps newcomers learn basic skills – paying electricity bills, taking a shower with running water, and sorting their mail (so they don’t throw away important documents like Social Security cards).

“The city officials charged with providing assistance in those early years were really heroic,” says Professor Besteman, who is based an hour away at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “They pioneered a city taking a responsibility instead of just voluntary agencies taking responsibility.”

Mike McGraw teaches a biology class at Lewiston High School in Lewiston, Maine on Jan. 26, 2016. McGraw is also the coach of the varsity soccer team whose undefeated team featured players from Somalia, Kenya and Congo. 'It doesn't take long for kids to become Americanized. What I'm happy about my kids is that they have not lost touch with their culture,' McGraw said.
Robert F. Bukaty/AP
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But some resent those efforts.

“My dad came [to Maine] from Canada and didn’t get all this help,” says Terry, an elderly Mainer shopping at the local Shaw’s grocery store. It’s not fair that the Somali refugees buy shopping carts full of food with the government’s money, she says with pursed lips. “That really gets me.”

Terry, who preferred not to give her last name because she has immigrant neighbors, is grateful Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) and his protégé, three-term Mayor Robert MacDonald, “got strict” on the immigrant and refugee populations.

In 2012, Mr. MacDonald told the city’s immigrants: “You accept our culture and you leave your culture at the door.” A year later he was reelected, beating former mayor Larry Gilbert, who has testified at a Senate hearing in favor of immigration reform. And in November 2015, two months after proposing a bill to create an online registry of the names and addresses of Lewiston’s welfare recipients, MacDonald beat a young progressive, Ben Chin, a third-generation American whose family came from China.  

“There are two contradictory stories about the impact of immigration in this country and they are at war with each other,” says Besteman. “And that contradiction is as true in Lewiston as it is in the country at large.”

Simone’s Hot Dog Stand

Rochelle Williams has worked at Simone’s Hot Dog Stand in downtown Lewiston for 18 years, over which the city has changed a lot. In a nod to the city’s growing Muslim immigrant population, for example, the diner has started selling pork-free versions of their famous hot dogs.

Somalia has become the third-largest source of refugees coming to the US since a civil war broke out between warring militia clans in the early 1990s. After passing background checks with US Immigration Services, Somali refugees are generally sent to urban areas such as Atlanta, St. Louis, and Fort Worth, Texas.

In 2001, a small group of Somalians moved farther north to Lewiston, attracted to the city’s walkable downtown area, good schools, and affordable rent. In recent years, refugees from other African countries have followed suit.

“We had a culture shock when they first came. ‘They’re taking our jobs’ – that was a big thing,” Ms. Williams recalls. “They couldn’t talk to anyone, it was rough.”

But gradually the community became more welcoming. 

Back at the hot dog stand, third-generation owner Jimmy Simone proudly shows visitors framed photographs of Governor LePage, Sen. Susan Collins, and former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe sitting at the diner’s counter – and the sweeping signature of Don Trump Jr. in the restaurant’s guestbook.

“Everything takes awhile, to understand each other,” he says while sharpening kitchen knives on the bottom of a coffee mug. “But now it’s a non-issue…. It’s just a part of life.”

Immigrants’ faith in the Constitution

Abu believes there are still “good and supporting” people in the town, but maybe not as many. She says locals on the street used to give her big, toothy grins as they passed but now they smile without showing their teeth.

“I wish Trump could meet me, and sit here with me in this chair and see how many people I help here every morning,” says Abu. “This is not my people I’m helping – it’s local people.”

Austin Wing and Abdi Shariff check out pictures on Shariff's phone at Lewiston High School in Lewiston, Maine on Dec. 14, 2015. The two students were players on the state championship-winning soccer team.
Robert F. Bukaty/AP
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Six weeks into Trump’s presidency the fear is still palpable. Libah says the travel ban “is the talk of the day, all the time.” If a white man drives slowly through the neighborhood, legal immigrants fear it is Homeland Security or the FBI coming back to revoke their green card.

However, some immigrants find calm in their basic knowledge of the US political system.

“We have lived in a place where Trump is the ultimate and nobody else can say anything about it. [But here] people are demonstrating, people are walking out, saying things about him,” says Libah. “The fact that we have all these systems that can say something about Trump, is what is hopeful.”

Libah says the power of United States’ “checks and balances” are valued by the refugee and immigrant community. “These systems can counterbalance if there is an issue, and that is what I am telling my people.”

Cleaning up from lunch at Trinity Jubilee Center in a bright red turban, Haibado Daher’s eyes grow big when she talks about the US political system.  

“Here it is not like the other countries in the world. Here there is no person that is the most powerful in the country; the law is the most powerful,” says Ms. Daher, who moved here from Djibouti in August. “The Constitution is written very good and it will be OK.”