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United States: A new kind of Mainer

By Cynthia Anderson / June 26, 2009

A Somali mother and child in Kennedy Park.

Cynthia Anderson

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A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

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LEWISTON, MAINE – Much has been made of the transfor­­ma­tion of this former mill town from one of America’s whitest cities to a place where 1 in 10 residents is of Somali descent.

Since the first Somali refugees settled here eight years ago, almost every national media outlet has visited. Early accounts portrayed Lewiston as racist after the then-mayor issued a letter asking the Somalis to stop coming.

Others then lauded the city’s tolerance as groups rallied to support the émigrés. The reality was more complicated. Talk still centers on the media’s narrow portrayals. “People do come with preconceptions,” says city official Phil Nadeau.

There’s no doubt that Lewiston has changed. Downtown, Somali-owned shops coexist with pawnshops and the secondhand stores that remained when other businesses closed in the 1980s.

In formerly forlorn Kennedy Park, children play under the watchful eyes of hijab-clad women. Markets have expanded their offerings to include African staples, and Somali kids are graduating from Lewiston High School as their parents complete ELL classes.

Challenges remain. Unemployment is high, and much of the money that flows from the Somali community originates in food stamps and general assistance.

Even so, Mr. Nadeau says the city is weathering the recession well. Over time, the residents – native Mainers and Somali alike – have gotten to know each other and forged a community. It’s not the stuff of breaking news, but it may be more profound.

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