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|United In A Quest For Understanding|
By KELLEY BOUCHARD, Portland Press Herald Writer
LEWISTON, Sunday, January 11, 2004 (Maine Newspapers) — A lot has changed in Lewiston over the last year. Vital city documents are being translated into three languages. Social service agencies are seeking better ways to provide job training, transportation and child care for all of the city's poorest residents.
A new mayor is promoting multicultural understanding along with economic development. In general, more people are focusing on what unites them, instead of what divides them. A 10-day festival started Saturday to celebrate these accomplishments.
Phil Nadeau can attest to an attitude shift.
The assistant city administrator points to a 5-inch pile of papers on his desk. It represents the thousands of letters, e-mails and telephone calls his office received in the months before two rallies rocked this city one year ago today.
The impetus for the rallies - one hosted by a neo-Nazi leader from Illinois that attracted a handful of supporters; the other a community diversity event at Bates College that drew more than 4,000 people - was a letter written by former Mayor Laurier Raymond in October 2002. The letter asked the city's growing Somali population to taper new arrivals. Raymond said Lewiston was "maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally" by the estimated 1,100 Somalis who had moved there since February 2001.
The reaction to Raymond's letter was swift. Most of the letters on Nadeau's desk came from Lewiston residents. Others came from Farmington, Brunswick, Cape Elizabeth, New Hampshire and beyond. Some called Raymond a racist. One said Raymond's letter made him "ashamed to be a resident of Lewiston-Auburn."
A majority, however, lauded Raymond's concern about the new arrivals' impact on taxpayers. Many urged him to "stay the course" and offered "100 percent support." A few expressed racist sentiments. One man from Virginia called Somalis an "infection of foreign bacteria now invading the collective body of Lewiston."
Nadeau hasn't received a letter like that since the rallies. In fact, he has received only one letter about Somalis during the last year, and it came from a woman in Hiram who blamed Somalis because her town officials refused to fix her contaminated well. Nadeau referred her to state officials who could provide some assistance.
Nadeau and others don't claim that everyone in Lewiston is happy that Somalis, many of them refugees, decided to move here from other U.S. cities. But overall, they say, Lewiston has become a safer, better place to live for Somalis and others since the rallies. The effort to help Somalis is improving services for all Lewiston residents and has rekindled the energy that once fueled this former mill town of 36,000 people.
"I think people's attitudes are different now," Nadeau said. "I think they are resolved to the fact that Somalis are going to live here. There is evidence that people are extending their hand to make Somalis and others feel welcome in this city."
"I see a change after a year," said Abdirizak Mahboub, director of Somali Community Services of Maine and owner of the Red Sea Restaurant on Lisbon Street. "Basically, the dissension was based on negative perception and rumors. It's not true that Somalis are exhausting local resources. People came here to make a home for themselves, like the Irish and the French before them. We see now that people are understanding. People are accepting."
The city demonstrated its new attitude Saturday, when the Many and One Coalition, the group that organized the diversity rally on Jan. 11, 2003, hosted a multicultural fair at the Lewiston Multi-Purpose Center. The fair kicked off Ten Days of Community, Diversity and Justice, which features musical performances, panel discussions, film screenings and other special events meant to inspire Mainers to reject bigotry and hatred.
Other advances over the last year may not be so apparent.
City Hall reviewed all of its programs and operations after the U.S. Department of Justice investigated how Lewiston served its non-English-speaking residents. As a result, the city now translates all vital documents, from job applications to birth certificates, into French, Somali and Spanish. Translation services are available on request for any other documents or services.
The city also provides AT&T translation services at the scene of all police, fire or other 911 emergencies that involve non-English-speaking residents.
"The result is, we are a better organization and we can serve the public better because of the exercises we went through," Nadeau said. "I would argue that there are few municipalities in Maine who are as compliant with federal civil rights regulations as we are now."
And the work continues. Police officials meet twice a month with representatives of various religious, ethnic and racial groups, as they have since the early 1990s, said Deputy Chief Michael Bussiere.
Last month, Lewiston and Portland police held a two-day conference with Somali leaders to help police better understand the needs of the Somali community and to help Somalis better understand U.S. laws and the justice system.
Bussiere said no racially motivated incidents involving Somalis have been reported to police since the rallies, even as the Somali population has grown to 1,500.
City officials say the number of new Somali arrivals has dropped from a high of 40 to 60 a month in 2002 to a steady 10 per month now. As a result, the city's human services budget has dropped to $458,000 in the current fiscal year. It was $531,000 the previous year, and $290,000 the year before that, Nadeau said.
There are 232 Somali students in Lewiston schools, and 221 of them attend classes for students who speak English as a second language. City officials estimate that half of all Somali adults have full-time jobs; the rest are attending ESL classes, college or job-training programs.
To help more Somalis enter the job market, Lewiston established the AmeriCorps Vista Somali Resettlement Project. The project is headed by Victoria Scott, the city's immigrant and refugee programs manager, who was hired shortly before the rallies.
The group includes representatives from various state and local social service agencies, such as Literacy Volunteers of Androscoggin County, Maine Department of Human Services and Daryeelka, a Somali-operated women's and children's advocacy group. The group is working to improve the availability of job training, transportation, child care and other factors that make it difficult for Somalis to find work.
"Many of these newcomers have had more life experience than any of us will ever know," Scott said. "We need to find a way to pull that out of them and help them apply it in the community . The goal is to move newcomers out of the social service system and toward independence . . . It's really about helping people to help themselves."
What city officials are learning, Nadeau said, is that all of the work being done to help Somali immigrants helps other newcomers, as well as longtime Lewiston residents. They say the influx of Somalis, initially viewed by some to be negative, has turned out to be a positive, motivating force that spurred community leaders and others to take a good, hard look at how the community has been taking care of its own since the mills closed in the 1970s and 1980s.