Refugees poured into my state. Here’s how it changed me.

Why We Wrote This

Refugees came to rebuild their lives, and rebuilt a town in turn. One Mainer who tracked this former mill town’s yearslong transformation found herself transformed: The native debunked her own biases about the newcomers.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Students at Connor Elementary School line up to play a game during gym class. An influx of 6,000 Muslim immigrants has helped revive, and change, the former mill town of Lewiston, Maine.

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When Somali refugees first arrived in Lewiston in February 2001, Maine was the whitest and oldest state in the nation. But it offered safety, access to services, and a lower cost of living.

In 2006, The New Yorker bluntly called what was happening in the former mill town a “large-scale social experiment.” Yet I was seeing a slow, quiet shift – Somalis stocking shelves at the supermarket; white and black kids sitting together at the library; white people buying goat meat. After one member of a Somali kindergartner’s family came home to find “Get Out” scrawled on their apartment building, longtime residents helped paint over it. 

Lewiston is more vital now than two decades ago. Of the city’s 36,000 residents, 6,000 are African refugees and asylum-seekers. New immigrants work in health care, retail, industry, and food service. Yet Lewiston’s challenges mirror those in other places with large refugee communities. And some Lewistonians blame the newcomers for whatever still feels wrong in the city – too few living-wage jobs, dilapidated infrastructure, the pockets of poverty that took hold after the mills closed. 

You can view the arrival of Muslim and other African newcomers as part of Lewiston’s struggles. Or you can see them as the closest thing the city has to a solution.

When I was growing up, Lisbon Street in Lewiston was the center of the world. A few times a year, my family drove there from our village 45 miles up the Androscoggin River to shop and to see my great-aunt Nell. She’d moved to the city decades earlier; her husband worked in a mill there. Now in her 70s, widowed, she lived in a tidy duplex with an upright bass. During our visits she served lemonade and rolls hot from the oven. The bass grumbled whenever my sister or I plucked it.

In the early 1970s, Lisbon Street formed the spine of the small city. The sidewalks were filled with families and couples. After shopping for school supplies at Kresge’s, we’d head to Ward Brothers department store, where the saleswomen spoke English to us and French to each other. The smell inside Ward’s was a heady mix of everything the cosmetics counter had to offer, the carpet soft underfoot.

My sister and I didn’t know it, but even then Lisbon Street was in decline. The city’s glory years manufacturing textiles and shoes, decades that had brought trains filled with French Canadians in search of jobs, were fading as one by one the mills closed. Maine’s once-richest city – its Bates Mill the state’s largest employer for more than two decades – would struggle for years to come. The couples and young families were vanishing.

Yet whenever I came back to the fine old buildings and the river and the hills beyond, I thought, here is a place. Even at its nadir the city retained grandeur and suspense, like a stage between acts. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
People cross Lisbon Street, the main commercial thoroughfare in Lewiston, where many shops are owned by immigrants.

By the mid-1990s a tenuous renaissance was taking form with health care, banking, and other services beginning to fill the postindustrial void. Former mill spaces were converted into restaurants and galleries. Unemployment fell, though the population continued to dwindle and downtown remained stagnant. Of the families who stayed, half of those with children under age 5 lived below the poverty level.

Such was the situation in February 2001 when the first Somali refugees came north from Portland, 40 miles away, where housing was short. Maine was cold, and homogeneous (whitest state in the nation, also the oldest), but it offered safety and access to services, and a lower cost of living than large cities where the federal government had first resettled the refugees. Moving to the extreme Northeast was their choice. Jokes about the snow – like the one about the kid who ran inside to tell his mom he’d just eaten sugar from the sky – soon embedded themselves in Lewiston-Somali culture.

By the beginning of 2003, more than 1,400 newcomers had come to the city. They settled into triple- and quadruple-deckers. When I came north that spring to visit friends, women in hijabs were shepherding kids down streets that for years had been all but empty. It was an incongruous, surprising sight. On Lisbon, a few closed stores had reopened under Somali ownership. I went into one, bought cardamom, and wondered at signs offering translation and money-wiring services, and – back out on the sidewalk – at the palpable energy. In a place where businesses rarely stayed open after 5 p.m., these were still lit at 8:30.

Refugees kept coming. People I knew in Lewiston responded to the changes in accordance with their nature: curious or suspicious, or holding off on judgment. In 2006, The New Yorker bluntly called what was happening in Lewiston a “large-scale social experiment.” There were, after all, now several thousand African Muslims in an overwhelmingly white town not known as a liberal outpost.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Tresor Muteba, originally from Congo, bikes in downtown Lewiston.

 Yet I was seeing a slow, quiet shift – Somalis stocking shelves at the supermarket; white and black kids sitting together at the library; white people buying goat meat on Lisbon. A high school acquaintance who had a daughter in kindergarten with Somali children was happy about the new diversity. “I only knew white kids when I was growing up,” he said. After one member of a Somali kindergartner’s family came home to find “Get Out” scrawled on their apartment building, longtime residents helped paint over it. They worked late into the night, he said, so the message would be gone when kids left for school in the morning.

If there was a hostile undercurrent, and if some complained Somalis consumed the city’s resources, other Lewistonians were reaching out and seeking accord. In 2006, a man rolled a pig’s head through the doorway of a mosque. Residents rallied around the city’s Muslims. The deed was denounced, the offender criminally charged. But the act spoke to a bitterness that remains.

Lewiston today has one of the highest per capita Muslim populations in the United States, most of it Somali along with rising numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers from other African nations including Congo, Djibouti, Sudan, and Chad. What’s happening here is isbeddel, the Somali word for transformation.

In spite of occasional news reports to the contrary, things have mostly gone well. But Lewiston is not Utopia. The city’s challenges mirror those in other places with large refugee communities. It has struggled financially, especially early on as the needs for social services and education intensified. Joblessness remains high among the older generation of refugees; many elders still speak little English. The trauma of wars new immigrants escaped – loss of loved ones, sexual assault, years of privation – means that many bear heartache. For some in Lewiston, the long-term effects of trauma hinder acculturation, both for them and for their children. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Fourth graders at Connor Elementary School play recorders in music class.

Yet Lewiston is more vital than it was two decades ago. Of the city’s 36,000 residents, 6,000 are now African refugees and asylum-seekers. New immigrants work in health care, retail, industry, and food service. The first Somali American kids born in the city are high school juniors, and a new elementary school opened in September with a 900-student capacity – among the largest K-5s in Maine. 

I’ve been reporting on Lewiston’s transformation for more than a decade now. Early on, the narrative I embraced about Lewiston’s newcomers was of passive refugee-victims. The life they fled in Africa did leave considerable scars, but over time I came to see that the new immigrants were not passive. Their resilience has moved and inspired me. One early acquaintance, Fatuma Hussein, founded United Somali Women of Maine to promote gender equality. She’d come to the U.S. at age 13 from a Somali refugee camp. The first line in my Lewiston notebook was hers: “We are making new lives here.”

Fatuma has made a new life. She and her husband, Muktar, have eight children, from college-aged to preschooler. The organization she founded in 2001, known now as the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, is one of the city’s largest nonprofits. There are stresses: family responsibilities and a perpetually jammed schedule, plus funding pressures as other Somali nonprofits have cropped up. Then there’s Fatuma’s de facto role as spokeswoman. She’s become a voice of Somali women in Maine, asked to testify when the Legislature considers refugee-related bills and sometimes quoted by the media. That role has intensified in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. More and more she feels like a mandated emissary of the Lewiston Somali community, demonstrating through action that Muslims are not to be feared.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Fatuma Hussein is founder of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, a nonprofit that supports refugees and immigrant communities. “In America, you can be whatever you want to be,” she says.

Fatuma admits her kids are under a lot of pressure. She wants them to earn A’s. Wants them to get into top colleges. To reflect well on the Somali community. And to be happy, of course. In America, you can be whatever you want to be. She tells them this a lot. But to get there, they have to study and do right. Whenever the topic of drugs comes up, Fatuma tells them she will kill them – she uses this word – if they ever get into that kind of trouble. She’s exaggerating but says, “I’d rather go to jail than see them having all this privilege and screw it up.”

Fatuma was 11, visiting relatives, when the Somali civil war erupted in 1991 after the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre’s government. Her memories of what happened are fragments: being pressed into the back of a crowded flatbed truck, the truck tipping over, people on the ground, gunshots and smoke, bodies motionless. Fear in Utanga, the refugee camp where she wound up. Heartaching separation from her parents and siblings.

For Fatuma that time in Utanga, and the hard years in Atlanta when she arrived there as an adolescent with extended family, background everything. Her kids will have what she did not, and they will play their part in getting there.  

The lives of Lewiston’s new immigrants are complex, often delineated by loss. Like Fatuma, Jamilo Maalim was separated from her parents. She was a toddler when militants attacked the family’s village and relatives fled with her to a refugee camp in Kenya. She lived there eight years. I met Jamilo when she was 22, or maybe 23. (Record keeping, especially during escalations in the war, was haphazard, and many refugees don’t know their birthdate.) Her downtown Lewiston apartment was spare but comfortable, decorated with swags of plastic flowers and photos of her daughter and son. The living room held a leatherette sofa and TV, and a soft rug where the family sat to eat their meals.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Immigrant teenagers play soccer on a basketball court at a park in Lewiston.

Jamilo’s physical traits – the set to her chin, upright posture, a warm but searching gaze – suggest both sensitivity and grit. When she arrived in Lewiston as a 9-year-old, she entered third grade. She was quick – learned English easily, made friends, loved gym class. Yet she struggled at home, shuttled among relatives who sometimes harshly punished. 

At 17 she left school and moved to Massachusetts to live with a Somali boy she’d met online. She named the baby born that fall Aaliyah – Arabic for ascending. A year later, the relationship dissolved. Jamilo and Aaliyah wound up in a shelter for several months. After Jamilo returned to Lewiston with her daughter, her family pressured her into an arranged marriage. That ended after two years, just after her second child, Hamzah, turned 1.

In spite of the instability, Jamilo kept moving forward. She returned to high school while pregnant with Aaliyah, got promoted to team leader within weeks of a new job, and played on a women’s soccer team. Almost daily, her extended family pressured her to return to the marriage. She wanted to raise her kids, work, and find a man with whom she could have a marriage that felt mutual. She wanted to sort through her past and choose her future.

Inshallah [God willing], someday I will have a happy life,” she told me not long after her marriage broke up. 

Getting to know Lewiston’s Somali community, with its many strong, independent women, forced me to reevaluate my views on Muslim gender bias. It also made me wonder about what I’d absorbed – was still absorbing – about Islam overall.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Lula Abdi, originally from Somalia, helps kindergartners at Connor Elementary School learn their letters using clay figures.

 Some Mainers I know describe a reexamination of values that stem from what they see as cultural richness in new immigrants. One Lewiston man put it like this: “My Somali friends changed the way I [see things]. What matters are relationships. Material things do not equate with happiness.” His observations resonated with me. For close to two centuries in Maine, my family’s life revolved around community, family, and faith. The values we abided by resemble the ones many of Lewiston’s newcomers hold close today.

A sizable minority of Mainers remains unhappy about the presence of the city’s newest residents. Lewiston sits in the state’s 2nd Congressional District. Mr. Trump won here in 2016, giving him his only electoral vote in New England. The expansion of the city’s services to include translators and English as a second language instructors is anathema to many, as is coexistence with Islam. In recent years, the region’s anti-Islam faction has gained momentum and new followers.  

Some Lewistonians blame the newcomers for whatever still feels wrong in the city – too few living-wage jobs, dilapidated infrastructure, the pockets of poverty that took hold after the mills closed. 

In truth, and in spite of what some might claim, there have been setbacks along the way – most recently when several young new immigrants were arrested in connection with the beating death of a man during a fight in the downtown park. That tragedy, which occurred in June 2018, prompted soul-searching among city leaders along with an investigation that so far has resulted in authorities charging one young person with manslaughter and two others with misdemeanor assault.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The Androscoggin River skirts Lewiston, a city of 36,000 that was once a hub of textile and shoe manufacturing.

But here’s the thing: You can view the arrival of Muslim and other African newcomers as part of Lewiston’s struggles. Or you can see them as the closest thing the city has to a solution. 

Phil Nadeau, the longtime deputy city administrator, was for more than a decade an outspoken advocate of the city’s rising population of refugees and asylum-seekers. In retirement he’s creating a website celebrating Lewistonian accord. “I love this place,” he told me of the city where he was born. “I want to make sure we go down on the right side of history.”

So much overlays the social landscape through which Fatuma and Jamilo and other new Lewistonians move. On a sunny autumn day in 2016, Jamilo hosted Aaliyah’s fourth birthday party at an orchard outside Lewiston. Most of the guests were Somali. Among the tree-lined rows, women hoisted kids onto their shoulders and handed them bags for apples. One woman’s fiancé – the only male guest – helped. “So many Eves, only one Adam,” another woman joked.

At the cash register, one of Jamilo’s friends commented that, because they were picking the apples themselves, she’d thought they were free. The cashier’s face hardened. “You shouldn’t take produce you can’t pay for,” she said.

Jamilo’s friend protested – she was paying; that’s why she’d brought her bag of apples to the register. If she didn’t have enough money, she’d take some out.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Immigrants from Egypt, Angola, Burundi, and other nations take an English language class.

The cashier narrowed her eyes. “It’s wrong.”

“I didn’t come here to steal your apples,” the friend said.

The cashier glared. The friend swore. The cashier threatened to call the police. Party guests backed away from the register. Jamilo and a friend hurriedly cleaned up the remains of the lasagna they’d brought.  

The party wasn’t ruined. The kids didn’t overhear the confrontation, and Jamilo shrugged it off. Her friend had a temper; the cashier was rude. Jamilo had dealt with worse.

A month later, Mr. Trump won the election. Jamilo texted me the next day. She was shocked by the outcome, she said, and worried for herself and other Muslims. Then she added, “God bless America! I still love this country!” That was Wednesday. The next day at noon she left work to go home and make lunch. As she stepped into a crosswalk, a motorist sped past and shouted at her to take off her hijab. Soon afterward Jamilo texted, “I’m terrified.”

A few days after the incident, though still shaky, she reiterated her love for the U.S. “This is my home,” she said.

Jamilo never thinks about leaving the U.S. After Mr. Trump was elected, Somali social media lit up with rumors. Muslims would be required to wear identification bracelets. They’d have to sign a national registry. Muslim men would be monitored. 

In the past three years, fear among newcomers in Lewiston has flowed and ebbed with the latest pronouncements out of Washington. But these are people who trekked miles across the desert, often under attack, to reach refugee camps where conditions were also perilous. Those who made it to the U.S. did so with a resolve that now characterizes their daily lives.

I first noticed this stoic reaction to what they considered bad news in the months after the presidential election. The new immigrants I knew worried about what was coming, yes. But there was a sense of continuity and a marked lack of bitterness. People were getting on with things, one man told me. In the months that followed, I saw it: Newcomers were quietly focusing on building their lives – on getting a new job, taking a college exam, preparing for a new baby. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Clothing with Somalia labels is popular in stores, like this one on Lisbon Street.

And on unity. “We need to come together. As community, as ‘we the people,’ it is our responsibility to fix the divide caused by our political leader,” community leader Abdikadir Negeye wrote in an opinion piece in the Lewiston Sun Journal. By “we the people,” Abdikadir means the state of Maine, the city of Lewiston – and its new immigrant community. 

Bridging differences is keenly personal to Abdikadir. He’s Somali Bantu, a marginalized ethnic minority. More than 2,000 Bantus live in Lewiston. Most descend from various African tribes whose people were captured and sold during the Indian Ocean slave trade. Even after slavery was abolished in Somalia at the turn of the 20th century, a vast class divide remained.

Direct yet tender, Abdikadir is married to Ikran, an ethnic Somali woman. He refers to it as a “mixed marriage.” Abdikadir’s family was OK with the union; hers pushed back and then relented. Abdikadir says he worried at first, when they were still engaged. But he loved Ikran. Their marriage would work. And so it has.

In the debate over the future of immigration in America, refugees and asylum-seekers are generally viewed as victims or as liabilities. Neither view encompasses the way I see new immigrants in Lewiston or the way they seem to see themselves: as initiators and collaborators. The proverb Iskaashato ma kufto – “If people support one another, they do not fall” – sums up the African way in Lewiston.

Tools in the new immigrant toolbox include consensus-seeking, de-emphasis on “being right,” and the goal of common understanding. In a public setting – say, a school committee meeting – newcomers feel the event should not adjourn until all who wish to speak have had a chance to do so. In part, this approach is cultural and ingrained. In part, it’s more newly acquired. Infighting – among clans, among ethnicities – has intensified Africa’s civil wars for generations. The newcomers know firsthand the costs of conflict. Those who made it to the U.S. want a fresh start – not unlike immigrants everywhere throughout the centuries.  

This much is indisputable: Before the arrival of its asylum-seekers and refugees, Lewiston was one more postindustrial city in slow fade. Now its newcomers are part of who it is – so too their life stories and their steady forward motion. 

New immigrant kids in Lewiston are Mainers now. They grew up with snow and the piercing blue of a winter sky. They wear wool hats with their hijabs and go to sleep at night with the nearby Androscoggin flowing beneath the ice.

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