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Somalies In Maine*

[proletariats ... one lifeboat ... free rides ..

Nomads in America: Somali migration transforms a New England town

Jonathan Tilove

Newhouse News Service

Published Sep 15, 2002 SOMVAR

LEWISTON, MAINE -- Every week, another four or five Somali families arrive in this workaday city on the Androscoggin River.

They are refugees from the clan-wracked ruins of their homeland on the Horn of Africa, from years of waiting in camps in Kenya. And they are migrants from their place of first resettlement in America, more often than not trekking 1,000 miles from the heat and multihued humanity of metropolitan Atlanta to this sparse, wintry, whitest of all states.

They are nomads, their ancient instincts honed to a 21st-century edge. Pioneers in a new world, they discovered Lewiston and claimed a bit of it for themselves.

"It's like finding a small island in the middle of the Pacific," said Mohammed Abdi, who moved to Lewiston last year from Decatur, Ga., and was quickly hired as the liaison between the city's schools and the burgeoning Somali community. "We put it on the map."

Not since 1965, when Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston a minute-46 into the first round of a heavyweight championship fight here, has Lewiston gained so much attention from "away," as Mainers warily describe the world beyond the state's borders.

At the start of 2001, not a single Somali lived in Lewiston. The old textile mill city of 35,000 had been losing population for 20 years, and in the 2000 Census counted but 361 black residents.

Today, there are about 1,000 Somalis, black and Muslim, in this sheltered redoubt of Franco-American Catholicism, where the 4 p.m. French Mass still packs them in at St. Peter and Paul Church. Lewiston has its first mosque, operating from a storefront on Lisbon Street, which en route to a neighboring town becomes a highway dedicated to the memory of Sgt. Thomas Field, a native son killed in Somalia in the battle depicted in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."

Seeking peace and quiet

The newcomers are arriving from several Somali communities in the United States, but mostly from Clarkston, Ga., an old railroad town outside Atlanta that in the past decade was transformed into an ersatz Ellis Island for refugees from every corner of the globe.

In their exodus, they say they are looking for peace and quiet, cheaper housing, a more benevolent welfare system, better schools and a place to raise their children -- families of seven or more are common with fewer perils and temptations. That they are leaving a metro area renowned as a black mecca to resettle in Maine, home to fewer than 7,000 blacks in 2000, is less a matter of irony than intent, given the prickly state of their relations with black Americans and a desire to protect their children from assimilating too quickly.

There is nothing new about immigrants collecting together and re-creating community.

But the Somali migration to Lewiston is different in tempo and coordination. The process is organically Somali, merging the timeless habits of a communal, nomadic, oral society (there was no written language until 1972) with a sophisticated cost-benefit appraisal of which American community best suits their needs.

It's executed at warp speed courtesy of the Internet, telephone cards and air travel. But it all begins with the Somali concept of "sahan."

Sahan in Somali means "send out," Abdi explains. It refers to the nomadic practice of sending out young men, scouts, in search of storm clouds. When they find them they return to their people and lead them and their herds to fresh water.

Fed up with life in Atlanta -- he was robbed twice -- Abdiaziz Ali said members of the Somali community there researched other places on the Internet, comparing crime rates, the cost of housing, test scores.

Then they sent scouts to a few cities -- Kansas City; Nashville; San Diego, Houston and El Paso in Texas, and Portland and Lewiston in Maine.

Maine was preferred, and Portland was full.

Ali, a 31-year-old father of five, came to Lewiston in April 2001. He was hired as a welfare caseworker and now greets new arrivals, signing them up for emergency financial assistance and finding them places to live.

Better welfare

"Maine is crazy cold," says Abdullahi Abdullahi, president of the new Somali Community Development Organization in Clarkston. But, he says, "the welfare system is much better."

Indeed, in moving from Georgia to Maine, Somalis are trading one of the nation's least generous welfare systems for one of its most generous.

Lewiston provides general assistance to anyone in need, splitting the cost with the state. Such relief was unavailable in Clarkston. In Georgia, there is a four-year time limit for receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. In Maine it's five, but even that can be extended. About a quarter of Lewiston's Somali families receive that form of welfare, according to the state. And in Maine, a state-funded program assists single parents while they attend college.

There is a waiting list for public housing in Lewiston, but not nearly as long as in Georgia. About a third of the more than 90 apartments at Hillview, Lewiston's largest public housing project, have Somali tenants, and about 35 more Somali families have received Section 8 vouchers, which subsidize the rent on private apartments.

On the first Monday after a new Somali family's arrival in town, Cheryl Hamilton, a 25-year-old cultural skills trainer who grew up across the river in Auburn, does a welcome-to-Lewiston slide show. On Tuesday, it's a bus tour.

A city brochure put out in April and titled "Who Are Our New Somali Neighbors?" informs readers in bold print that Somalians are "totally against terrorism" and "take great pride" in providing for their own families.

But many in Lewiston, at least on this last point, remain unconvinced.

Fernand (Frenchy) Langlois owns Frenchy's barbershop, adjoining the mosque on Lisbon Street. "Give them a chance," he tells his customers, who converse in a fluid patois of French and English. "Wait two years, then decide."

Langlois came to Lewiston more than 40 years ago, recruited for mill work from his home in Cornwall, Ontario. He has yet to become an American citizen.

When he arrived, Lewiston was producing a quarter of all American-made textiles. In Auburn it was shoes. But that is all gone.

"Then there was more work than there were people," Langlois said. "Today, there are more people than there is work."

Lewiston has rebounded with an economy built on health care, banking and other services. But Renee Bernier, the City Council president, says the market for unskilled labor with limited English is gone.

Bernier, who has a security business, says that when she tried to hire 30 Somalis at $8 an hour to hold signs at road construction sites, the few who showed interest wanted to work only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. She was further irked when some Somalis sought low-interest loans for businesses downtown -- without good credit or a track record -- under an obscure city program.

"How the hell do they find out about this stuff?" she asks.

Lewiston's first Somali was Awil Odowa Bile, now the president of Somali Community Services, the city's first Somali organization.

Bile, a customs officer in Somalia, had spent nearly a decade in a refugee camp in Nairobi when he learned that he was being let into the United States. When he started to make inquiries in the camp he was told, "Our countrymen have moved to a small state in the north named Maine, a peaceful place."

After being resettled in Pittsburgh, Bile moved to Portland but found it full. He, his wife and six children spent four months in a shelter before officials in Lewiston invited them to come live there, where housing was still available.

And, as Abdi says, word spreads quickly among Somalis. "Everybody talks to everybody. They call each other. They ask questions."

Abdi warmed to Lewiston within two weeks of arriving. He liked that his children could play in the park without him or his wife feeling obliged to watch them. He liked seeing the same police cruiser with the same officer in it eight times a day.

Says Abdiaziz Ali, "It was a sleepy town before. We light the city a little bit."

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