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USA/Africa: At Home in Maine
November 25, 2019 (2019-11-25)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
“Safiya overcame so many obstacles, I can’t find the words to
describe how much we’re proud of her. Internet trolls could not
stop her, threats could not stop her. She’s the perspective the
city needs. It’s a really big deal, a tremendous transformation for
this city.” - Mo Khalid, speaking of his sister Safiya Khalid on
her election to the Lewiston, Maine City Council on November 6,
If you´re not from Maine, but have heard of Lewiston in the news in
recent years, it may be because of the Lewiston High School boys´
soccer team on which Mo Khalid played, which has won 3 state-wide
championships in the last five years (2015, 2017, and 2018, but not
this year). Or it may be from the many articles over the years that
have noted the welcome, despite difficulties, for African refugees
in Lewiston in the past two decades.
Two authors who have closely followed Lewiston for most of this
period, Amy Bass and Cynthia Anderson, have recently published
books which well complement each other and provide engagingly
written and well-researched accounts of the encounters between
Lewiston and its new residents. Bass, in One Goal,
highlights the story of the soccer team in the years leading up to
their first state championship in 2015, and how the school, its
soccer coach, and both immigrants and long-time residents fostered
school and community pride in a team led by African players.
Anderson, in Home Now, follows a set of immigrant and
other Lewiston residents over the years from 2016 to early 2019,
coping with anti-immigrant sentiments mobilized at national and
state level as well as local fears, and how sustained personal
interactions built the grounds for mutual understandings.
With a population of 36,000 in 2017, Lewiston is the second-largest
city in Maine, after Portland with 67,000. And, of all U.S. states,
Maine is the one with the highest percentage white population
(94%). Lewiston might seem to be an unlikely location to host as
many as 6,000 first or second-generation African immigrants, most
of them U.S. citizens. But most residents agree that both Lewiston
and Portland (with a larger African immigrant community although
proportionately less) have benefited from the new residents.
Lewiston in particular has experienced a significant demographic
and economic recovery. It has set a precedent that is being closely
watched at state-level, as Maine also is the
state with the highest median age and a recognized need for a
younger work force.
Lewiston differs in many respects from the hundreds of other
communities where African immigrants live across the country. It is
not among the top five or even the top 50 in terms of numbers of
African immigrants. According to census data, about 36 percent of the 2 million first-generation African immigrants live in the five metropolitan areas
of New York, Washington, DC, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Atlanta.
The proportion of refugees in the immigrant community in Lewiston
who were eligible for initial assistance is probably larger than in
most other communities. And each geographical area has its own
distinct mix of national backgrounds, such as the prominence of
Somalis in this immigrant generation and French-Canadians in
previous generations in Lewiston.
But one conclusion from these two authors is likely to hold nation-
wide. When I asked her about the election of Safiya Khalid, Cynthia
Anderson told me that again and again she found that “the most
vocal anti-Muslim and anti-refugee voices in the state belonged to
those who neither live among nor know newcomers.” And Amy Bass,
reflecting on her experience covering games of the Lewiston soccer
team around the state, similarly noted that contact through sports
provided an opportunity for changing minds, despite the hostility
often initially apparent among the supporters of opposing teams.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains, first, a recent article by Amy
Bass, on the election of the first Somali-American member of the
Lewiston city council, and a short excerpt from the book by Cynthia
Anderson. (Longer excerpts from Bass´s and Anderson´s books are
available on line in Sports Illustrated
and the Christian Science Monitor
These are followed by a short email interview with both authors
asking their reflections on developments since their books were
written. At the end of the Bulletin is a a selection of links to
other recent sources with additional relevant background
information, both about the particular Maine experience and the
wider context of recent African immigration to the United States.
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration, visit
On African refugees and Lewiston Maine also see the 2016 book
by Catherine Besteman,
Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston.
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
When Lewiston Wins...
by Amy Bass
November 6, 2019
I love Election Day. I always have. To be able to vote,
understanding what so many people have done before me to make sure
I can and to make sure others can too is something that I am in awe
of every single time I do it. Election Day morning is filled with
hope. Election Day evening can be exhausting, exhilarating, or
bone-crushingly sad and disappointing.
This year, Election Day was something extra special.
I woke up thinking not of voting, but of soccer. The Lewiston Blue
Devils Boys Soccer team was to face the Brunswick Dragons for the
regional title. The winner would go on to states. The loser would,
well, you know -- go home. Game day proved to be kind of miserable,
defined by the cold and rainy weather that often permeates playoff
soccer in Maine. But when the clock hit zero, Lewiston prevailed,
3-1, with Suab Nur and Bilal Hersi scoring goals backed by the
offensive and defensive skills of both the starting lineup and the
bench. Hunched over my phone with my daughter watching the postgame
celebration via proud sister Halima Hersi's Instagram live feed,
wearing the "I VOTED!" stickers we had received hours before at the
polls (and thank you to the kind poll workers who gave the 12-year-
old a sticker), I felt the familiar sense of awe that I get when
Lewiston plays soccer. It is a feeling that has never gone away, no
matter how many times I see them play. Lewiston, it seems, can’t
stop winning. But the day was far from over.
I first met Safiya Khalid on the sideline of – what else? – a
soccer game in Connecticut. Her brother, Mohamed, having graduated
from Lewiston High School in 2016, a member of the stories
championship squad described in ONE GOAL, was on the field for the
Kent School, where he and Abdi H. were spending a postgraduate year
playing soccer and preparing for college. It was a gorgeous fall
day, quintessential New England, and Safiya and younger brother
Sharmarke cheered Mo while goofing around with the various cousins
who had accompanied them on the trek. Later, over pizza, Safiya
told me about her life, about how she balanced work with school,
and regaled me with hilarious tales about her brothers.
Now, just 23-years-old, she is the first ever Somali-American
elected to Lewiston City Council.
She nailed down almost 70% of the vote, and she worked for it. She
campaigned in person, emphasizing door-to-door canvassing over
social media, where trolls loomed large and ugly. She introduced
herself to hundreds of people, telling them her story, how she got
from the refugee camps of Kenya to the United States. How she
majored in psychology at the University of Southern Maine while
working full time to help support her family. How she
unsuccessfully ran for school board when she was just 20-years-old.
And why she wanted Lewiston's elected officials to better represent
the diversity that now rings throughout the city, with thousands of
newcomers from Africa settling down, going to school, raising their
families, and trying to create a future. There are more young
people in Androscoggin County than anywhere else in Maine, the
"oldest" state in the U.S. Safiya wanted to get her voice into the
When I reached out to Mo, who has become a close friend, early in
the afternoon on Election Day to wish the family luck, he replied
with a photo of himself and his friends -- soccer players, of
course -- still canvassing for his sister, getting out every last
vote they could. It would be several more hours before he would
text again, but when he did, the unofficial results were in.
"She wonnnnnh!!!!" read the text.
Nothing else needed to be said.
Despite a lot of ugliness, including and especially the racist and
xenophobic trolls who infiltrated her social media spaces (and some
of my own), Safiya Khalid had done it. She won. Endorsed by just
about everyone, surrounded by supporters and helpers, Safiya Khalid
mobilized a historic door-to-door campaign for City Council that
brought with it a huge victory.
I asked Mo this morning how he felt about all this, how he felt
about his sister achieving what she did. He replied:
Safiya overcame so many obstacles, I can’t find the words to
describe how much we’re proud of her. Internet trolls could not
stop her, threats could not stop her. She’s the perspective the
city needs. It’s a really big deal, a tremendous transformation for
Lewiston is a city that has experienced a lot of transformation in
a very short period of time. An influx of newcomers over the last
decade and a half, downtown's ongoing rebirth, the expansion of the
high school's athletic fields, the building of a new elementary
school, and now a referendum voted just yesterday by an
overwhelming margin that authorizes how the high school itself will
be bigger before too long.
And there is soccer, of course, which has become one of the
constants in this ever-changing city. On Saturday, the Lewiston
Blue Devils Boys Soccer team will head back to the state final
looking for a third straight title, and a fourth in five years. I
hope the Falmouth Yachtsmen are ready. Because when Lewiston wins,
by Cynthia Anderson
Excerpt from Chapter 13 in Home Now (2019)
New immigrants work throughout L-A [Lewiston-Auburn]—in both of the
hospitals, Argo, Bates College, the cities’ banks and hotels,
manufacturing plants, Walmart, supermarkets, and as childcare
providers, shopkeepers, farmers, caseworkers, home health aides.
Anti-Islamists claim that refugees and asylum seekers take jobs
that should go to native-born citizens. But Maine needs workers. It
still has the highest median age of any state—and labor shortages
in several sectors, including agriculture, hospitality, and retail.
For years Maine’s innkeepers and restaurant owners have imported
workers on H-2B visas to fill summer jobs.
According to Phil Nadeau, by late 2002 close to half of Lewiston’s
adult Somalis had found jobs. As more refugees arrived, that
percentage remained steady for years before rising at the end of
the decade. Early news stories reported employers reluctant to hire
Somalis because of concerns about Muslim culture. But by 2007, when
I wrote a magazine piece about Lewiston, things were changing. I
profiled Mohamed Maalin, who worked on the manufacturing floor at
Dingley Press. If he needed to pray during a shift, a crewmate
covered for him. “It’s worked out,” a manager said. “He’s a great
employee.” Last summer, driving west on Route 196 into Lewiston, I
noticed Dingley had a recruiting table set up outdoors. It was
there for days. One afternoon I saw a van pull up. Two black men
got out, walked toward the table. The company’s workforce is now 20
percent Somali and other African newcomers.
The availability of workers in the L-A area has drawn employers.
L.L. Bean opened a new boot-making plant in Lewiston in June 2017.
“Demographics are definitely part of it,” says Bean shift manager
Rick Valentine. “We wanted to feel confident we could fill the
jobs.” In some cases, Bean also receives tax credits for hiring
When machines at the new plant and in nearby Brunswick are fully
running, 450 boot-making employees will beat back a near-constant
backlog. Twenty-seven-year-old Abdiweli Said is one of them. He
grew up in Dadaab and came to the US with older siblings. At LHS he
played varsity soccer. After that he went on to community college
and then to USM, where he studied international relations until the
costs and the commute got to him.
In the four years he’s worked at Bean, Abdiweli has absorbed the
lore. How back in 1912, L.L. got tired of wet feet while hunting
and designed himself some boots. Founded a company, mailed one
hundred pairs of boots to customers—satisfaction guaranteed—and got
ninety back. Nearly went out of business, but figured out just in
time why the bottoms were tearing from the uppers. Last year the
company produced 600,000 pairs of its iconic boot. Abdiweli owns a
pair. Actually, he owns two, but a friend appropriated the other
pair last winter.
One summer afternoon, Abdiweli works second shift. He and his
crewmates surround a device that forms polymer soles and bottoms.
Leather uppers get sewn on later. On the manufacturing floor: a
mechanical roar but surprisingly little smell. People fit socks
onto sized lasts, which disappear via conveyor into a molding
machine. Inside, polymer flows around the last. The resulting
piece—picture a rubber moccasin with no sole—is heat-fused with its
matching bottom into a waterproof half-boot. An aperture opens and,
in a maneuver that conjures a sportsman being ejected feetfirst,
the boots emerge soles-up on metal legs.
Robotic arms pluck the boots off the feet. Abdiweli trims excess
fabric. Someone applies the Bean label. Two others pack. Boom, a
dozen pairs of half-boots—done. Next stop, Brunswick.
Valentine calls a break. Workers gather for a photo for an upcoming
grand-opening celebration. The mayor has been invited, and the
governor. Bean executives will be here, too, to watch the crew run
the newest million-dollar molder. After the photo comes stretching:
backs, shoulders, arms, even fingers. Abdiweli leads a soccer
stretch—crosses legs, reaches hands toward feet, 1-2-3-4.
Two-thirds of Abdiweli’s crewmates come from Somalia or other parts
of Africa. The rest are white. “It’s a premier company,” he says.
“We work hard, but they take really good care of us”—by which he
means the breaks and the stretching, plus state-of-the-art
workspace, good pay, high-end health plan, employee fitness room,
and a designated space where he goes for salah.
The prayer space, and the fact that Bean gives Muslims paid holi
days on Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha, means a lot. Abdiweli’s co-worker Safiya Khalid remembers a different experience at Kmart
where a supervisor admonished her for speaking Somali during a
break. “There was no understanding,” she says.
“Expect diversity,” people are told when they apply to Bean.
Valentine says he sees people and personalities, not ethnicity.
“When you work with someone day after day—skin color, head
coverings, all that sort of disappears.” Everyone is known for
something particular to their person—Abdiweli’s quick hands and
droll sense of humor; Safiya’s ability to multitask two stations at
As immigrants in Lewiston have gained traction and established
lives, some have expanded their social networks to include longtime
residents who seem in need. Aba Abu, the Trinity Jubilee
caseworker, also drives a bus that picks up kids with special
needs. One of her passengers is a white boy who lives with his
father. The father, overwhelmed, often sends his son to school
wearing the same clothes as the day before. “It was sad to see him
like that in the morning,” Aba said. So she started buying shirts
to send home with the boy.
Acculturation has turned out to work both ways. Newcomers adapt
but also influence the broader community. At CMCC an instructor
reports that Somali eagerness for education is contagious. “When
[other students] see refugees taking their educational
opportunities seriously, it establishes a certain climate,” he
says. Last winter, on an afternoon when Nasafari was in class,
about a third of the students in the CMCC cafeteria were new
At the institutional level, advocates say racial equality is closer
than it was a decade ago—but not achieved. “Look, we’ve made
progress in Lewiston, but we’re not there yet,” says Fowsia Musse,
director of Maine Community Integration. Musse and others cite
improvements: organizations in which services are provided
horizontally rather than vertically—that is, new immigrants helping
each other rather than being “helped” by white administrators;
newcomers employed in city institutions as other than interpreters
and cultural brokers; a school system that while imperfect still
graduates most of its new-immigrant kids—and sends many on to
Email Interview with Amy Bass and Cynthia Anderson
November 18-20, 2019
AfricaFocus: Both of you stress how Lewiston has welcomed Somali
and other African immigrants despite anti-immigrant sentiment by
many in the Lewiston community, further fueled by anti-immigrant
rhetoric and policy at the national level. How do you see this
playing out in Lewiston since you completed writing your books, and
what additional difficulties do you see for 2020, with an
approaching national election?
Amy Bass: Talking about Lewiston – or any community undergoing
rapid transformation – means it is constantly a story of steps
forward and steps back. There will be fractures, and there have
certainly been fractures since ONE GOAL came out, but there will
also be what I would call “coming togethers.” And I think that what
you have to hope for is that each fracture’s lasting damage will be
minimized, and the tools that have been assembled over the last
decade or so will be put to use quickly, making each coming
together moment more meaningful, stronger, and with a longer
lasting impact. I think the recent election of Safiya is a truly
bright moment in so many ways – to be the first person elected.
Everything she encountered in terms of hateful trolls was highly
unoriginal and expected, but it doesn’t make any of it easier to
stand. Yet she persisted and persevered and now will represent
Lewiston. But there are always stormy waters ahead – these things
are not new, but they are, perhaps, newly emboldened. And figuring
out paths forward will still require organization, community, and,
quite honestly, bravery.
Cynthia Anderson: I feel hopeful. HOME NOW ends in January 2019,
with the inauguration of a new Maine governor, progressive Janet
Mills. The prior governor had tried to withdraw the state from the
federal refugee resettlement program and held anti-immigrant views.
In choosing Mills, a Democrat and new-immigrant advocate, voters
Refugees and asylees are a visible change not just in Lewiston but
in Maine overall. Integrating has been hard work—for the newcomers
and for the cities where they settled. It’s taken time and money
and concerted effort. It still does. One message of the 2018
midterm seemed to be that Mainers as a whole feel the effort is
worth it, that they believe they’re collectively becoming something
greater than they used to be.
AfricaFocus: You note that strong leaders in the school system and
city administration were key to crafting constructive policies.
Several Lewiston mayors with anti-immigrant views, for their part,
seem to have been catalytic in evoking a backlash of support for
immigrants. City council members, on the other hand, do not appear
prominently in either of your narratives. With this fall´s election
of Safiya Khalid to the council as well as a new mayor, do you
anticipate greater collaboration in a positive vein, or are there
likely to be new points of tension?
Amy Bass: See above – I guess I answered both.
Cynthia Anderson: Safiya Khalid brings new consciousness and a new
perspective to the city council, so I anticipate points of tension
and greater collaboration, both.
Safiya’s election is momentous. Media coverage focused on her
victory in spite of the trolls’ ugliness, but the real story is
that Ward 5—which is not majority new-immigrant— gave her 70
percent of their vote. To me this suggests evolving ease between
longtime Lewistonians and newcomers. This is the real news. Again
and again in writing HOME NOW I saw that the most vocal anti-Muslim
and anti-refugee voices in the state belonged to those who neither
live among nor know newcomers. Familiarity has yielded acceptance.
AfricaFocus: An AP story in
2017 stressed the contrast in views on immigrants between
Lewiston and the surrounding Androscoggin county, highlighting the
2016 national election results. National research studies also show
that anti-immigrant views are found disproportionately in
communities with less exposure to immigrants. In your opinion, are
efforts to counter these views, such as that by Catholic Charities
mentioned in the article, having any effect, either in Androscoggin
county or elsewhere in rural and small-town Maine? If not, what do
you think could be done differently? For example, are you aware of
political leaders or non-profit groups trying to address the issues
of rural Mainers both feeling and actually being left behind?
Amy Bass: Not really a question that is in my current
wheelhouse -- super specific to local politics, and there are
plenty of people
on the ground in Lewiston who should it far before I should. I will
say this, however: ONE GOAL isn’t just about soccer. It’s about
points of contact – very deliberate points of contact. One of the
biggest battles Lewiston soccer confronts, whether it is facing a
midcoast team or a rural team, is the world view of the other team,
the coaches, and the officials. That is contact. That is saying
“Here we are” within the specific rules of a game, a game that
emphasizes continuity over fracture, a game that asks both sides to
move a ball largely (although not entire) without a whole lot of
contact. That’s important. So for me, it isn’t about the political
leaders or groups – it’s politics by other means, and in this case,
those means are soccer. And it’s doing some of the hard work,
creating teammates on clubs like Seacoast United, and forging bonds
that go beyond that of opponent.
Cynthia Anderson: Safiya Khalid was elected because she’s smart and
hard-working—voters saw this AND they’d reached a point where they
no longer feared her as a Somali Muslim refugee— as “other.”
Contact and shared experience did that. The point is that the views
of people in other Androscoggin County towns already are
changing—and will keep changing—as new immigrants move into those
communities and/or people continue to get to know each other at
work and at school, etc. When I met Safiya Khalid a couple of years
ago, she had a job at L.L. Bean on a boot-making crew composed half
of longtime Mainers and half of new immigrants. As the crew manager
put it: “When you work with someone day after day—skin color, head
coverings, all that sort of disappears.”
As for rural Mainers feeling (and being) left behind, this is
something I know keenly, having grown up in the western part of the
state. The closures of mills and factories meant the loss of well-
paying jobs, of course, but also a wholesale loss of morale over a
generation. And that loss bred longing for the past and resentment
of the new (including refugees and the resources they might
consume). Western Maine’s biggest challenge is the creation of more
living-wage jobs—for longtime residents and newcomers alike.
AfricaFocus: Although every community experience is unique, it
seems that there might be many similarities as well as contrasts
between the experiences with African immigrants of Lewiston and
Portland in particular. Do you have any reflections on this? Is
there any organized dialogue on this between communities or
officials in the the two cities?
Amy Bass: There’s tons of dialogue, and has been from day one, when
Portland shifted those first families to Lewiston, and created the
collaborative. But again, rather than look at organized anything,
look at the networks that people forge themselves, whether it is
with a group like MEIRS or one like Gateway. Understanding that
these things work outside of, and often in spite of, what might be
considered traditional frameworks of politics, is critical in
understanding what has worked, and what hasn’t.
Cynthia Anderson: Amy’s right that much of the
dialogue/collaboration between Lewiston and Portland is informal
rather than structured or official. This is partly because with
time refugees increasingly have taken over responsibility for their
own adjustment to life in the U.S. Newcomers run nonprofits and
other agencies; they prioritize goals and advocate for themselves.
In HOME NOW, I talk about the strong web of outreach from new
immigrants to newer immigrants. Self-sufficiency means having the
ability to handle issues within the community—and to talk and work
inter-agency, informally, as well as with city officials.
On African immigrants in the United States
Background and statistics from the Migration Policy Institute,
November 6, 2019. Sub-Saharan African Immigrants in the
An interactive view of the map above is available from Migration Policy Institute at
Book forthcoming in December 2019: Voices of African Immigrants in Kentucky: Migration, Identity, and
Transnationality (Kentucky Remembered: An Oral History Series)
by Francis Musoni, Iddah Otieno, Angene Wilson, Jack Wilson.
On the economic need for immigration
Charles Kenny, “The Real Immigration Crisis: The Problem Is Not Too
Many, but Too Few”
Foreign Affairs, November 11, 2019
Background on Maine current economy and politics
Bangor Daily News, November 2016
Maine Center for Economic Policy, July 2017
The Nation, October 2018
Maine Center for Economic Policy, November 2018
More on African refugees and other migrants in Lewiston and Maine
And a few articles of interest about Somali Americans in Minnesota
(among many recent news articles; see customized Google news search)
Ilhan Omar´s constituents push back against Trump taunts (including
3-minute video), October 2019
Why Minnesota question answered by Star Tribune, June 2019
Why Minnesota question answered by local TV, July 2019
American football, too, Willmar, Minnesota, November 2018
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