Sahro Hassan, a young Somali Muslim immigrant to Maine who is designing fashions
There are parts of the United States that I think of as populated by white folks. With the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric from the right, and specifically anti-Muslim spews, I certainly didn’t think of a state like Maine as a place to examine African migration to the U.S. And yet, one of the most interesting immigration and re-settlement success stories, is that of the Somali-Americans who live, flourish, and have re-vitalized the economy of a depressed area — the Somalis of Lewiston, Maine.
Take an economically struggling Maine mill town of 36,600 and add to it nearly 5,000 Somalis seeking haven in a new country. On the surface, it hardly looks like a formula for success. When the first substantial numbers of Somalis began arriving in 2001 in Lewiston, they were not welcomed with open arms. Unemployment was high, and locals feared that new arrivals would overburden social services and increase competition for the few jobs left after the closure of once-thriving textile mills.
Despite Lewiston’s economic slump, it was one of the US cities that Somali refugees themselves found attractive—through websites and word of mouth: good schools, affordable housing and, most important of all, a safe place to raise a family. Many brought a strong sense of community and entrepreneurship; they enrolled their children in the local public schools, signed up for English courses and found—or created—jobs.
Today, per-capita income in Lewiston is rising. The crime rate has dropped. The center of town, once called “The Combat Zone,” has new, family-owned grocery stores offering halal meats (prepared following the Islamic method of slaughter), and there are storefront mosques in between new organic-food cafes as well as other more conventional businesses. “Challenges still exist,” comments Julia Sleeper, founder of Lewiston’s Tree Street Youth Center. “Acculturation is messy.” But relations, she says, continue to improve. This, she says, is “testimony to the strength of both communities.”