Residents of Lewiston, a small textile town in Maine, are getting acquainted with their new neighbors — some 1,200 refugees from the war-ravaged East African nation of Somalia.
Lewiston, population 36,000, is a predominantly white town about 25 miles southwest of Augusta, Maine's capital.
"That a group from Africa would suddenly show up at our doorstep is really a surprise," said Douglas Hodgkin, a political science professor at Bates College. "It seems like a shot out of the blue."
When a vicious civil war devastated Somalia in the 1990s, thousands of refugees fled to the United States. Many initially settled in the Atlanta area. However, city life was not what the Somalis were accustomed to back in their homeland. The crime rate was high and the housing too expensive.
"Life in the big city is difficult," said Musa Hussein, a Somali who now works as an English instructor in Lewiston. "It's stressful. Access to services and employment is very difficult."
Seeking a Better Life
Just like most Americans, the Somali refugees sought a more comfortable and convenient lifestyle in a place with opportunity and good schools for their children. That's what they found when they came to Lewiston in early 2001.
"Atlanta is a big city. It's not good for kids," said Nimo Muhammed, a Somali who moved to Lewiston six months ago. She said she moved there with her eight children in search for a better life.
"I have a big space now. I have a big apartment. It's cheaper than Atlanta," Muhammed said.
Struggling to Find a Job
Although Lewiston offers Muhammed a cheaper lifestyle, she, like most Somali immigrants, is still grappling to find a job. Three out of four refugees typically apply to the city for welfare when they arrive, and many admit Maine's generous benefits are part of what attracted them to the area.
However, the state's generosity has caused Lewiston's welfare costs to double, causing officials to contemplate having to raise property taxes. Some of the town's longtime residents are infuriated.
"When the Franco-Americans came here, they came and got jobs and worked in the mills and did not go to the city for all this general assistance," said Rene Bernier, president of the Lewiston City Council. "And that's what the community is in an uproar about, because they don't see them working."
For the Somalis, finding work has proven difficult, as many of those who arrive have no job skills or speak little English. Somali women, especially, face a tremendous struggle finding employment after being raised in a culture where very few girls are even allowed to receive an education.
"Many Somali women have never been to school," said Elizabeth Jonitis, an English language teacher. "They have never learned to read or write in any language."
A ‘Hard’ Time Assimilating
However, even some refugees working steady jobs face struggles assimilating.
"Sometimes, you know, it's hard," said Shanyalo Allis, a Somali refugee who has a job making clothing labels. "Some people ask me, 'Why are you coming here? Are you a refugee? Go back to your country'."
Nonetheless, city officials and many of the immigrants themselves say these instances are rare, and for the most part, they have been welcomed.
"We've done an amazing job, as a community, in embracing the idea of becoming culturally diverse," said Phil Nadeau, Lewiston's director of human services. "But the real test will happen over time."
Lewiston has been an escape for the Somali immigrants, and many plan to make it a permanent home.