(source) Lewiston, Maine shows us two things: how quickly populations can change and why change matters. In 2000, it was a sleepy, 95-percent white, mill town of fewer than 35,000 people. By 2010 it was only 86 percent white. This was almost entirely due to the arrival of Africans – mostly Somalis – who raised the black population from 1.07 percent to 8.67 percent in just 10 years. Africans have probably had a more dramatic and disturbing effect on Lewiston than virtually anything else in its entire history. Their arrival made a few headlines in the early 2000s, but has since been largely forgotten. Here is a timeline of what happened, drawing from local news stories and the American Renaissance archive.
January 2000: Some time this spring about 30 refugees from the West African country of Togo will arrive in this overwhelmingly white community. No one knows if they speak English or can hold down a job. Never mind, says James Carignan, a Lewiston city councilman and dean of Bates College, simply having them around will be wonderful. “Great cities are diverse cities,” he explains. “They are multicultural in character. We are too homogenous at present. We desperately need diversity.” He is sure that “the 30 new neighbors from Togo and those from around the world who will follow them will bring us the diversity that is essential to our quest for excellence.” (James Carignan, Refugees Bring Skills, Ideas and At Little Cost to Residents, Sun Journal (Lewiston), Jan. 2, 2000.)
2001: This was the year the transformation truly got under way, when “African Muslims, many from the Bantu tribe, began arriving . . . at the rate of 100 a month.” (Paul Williams, Small Town America Transformed by Somali Migrants, Family Security Matters, July 16, 2010.)
May 2002: Former Maine Attorney General Jim Tierney comments, “Many of our best Maine kids move away-perhaps for education or perhaps for work-and find a level of energy and excitement in places where diversity is the rule and not the exception. And they like it.” He went on to say more immigration could solve this problem: “Both liberals and conservatives view diversity the same way. Liberals see it as, ‘We have to help these people.’ Conservatives see it as ‘We can’t afford to help these people.’ What I’m saying is, guys, you’re looking at it the wrong way. This is not a burden. This is essential. This is an opportunity. In fact, maybe it’s more than just an opportunity.” (Bill Nemitz, State’s Future Looks Brighter With More Color, Portland (Maine) Press Herald, May 12, 2002.)
August 2002: Approximately 1,200 Somali refugees have descended on the city of Lewiston . . . Originally resettled by the federal government in Atlanta and elsewhere, the Muslim Somalis began arriving in Lewiston in February 2001. . . and their numbers are growing by about 120 every month.
Somalis didn’t choose Lewiston by accident. The ones in Atlanta wanted to escape high rates of violent crime and drug use. In 2000, the elders sent scouting parties to a number of cities where Somalis already lived, such as Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City; and Portland, Maine. Portland was promising, but housing was expensive. The elders chose nearby Lewiston because housing was cheaper and welfare benefits were higher: up to $742 a month for housing and $454 for food for a family of four. Lewiston isn’t known for its thriving economy, but that makes no difference to the Somalis, who aren’t looking for jobs anyway.
Now 729 Somalis are on the dole, and account for 46 percent of the city’s welfare spending. The city has hired two additional welfare workers to handle the influx of indigents, and two new English as a Second Language teachers to cope with the one-year jump from 25 to 230 in the number of students who don’t speak English. The schools also hired six new teaching assistants and a Somali parent coordinator. So far this year, Somalis have swallowed up $400,000 in welfare and education benefits. (Brian MacQuarrie, New Arrivals Put Strain on Lewiston, Boston Globe, July 16, 2002. Mark Bixler, Atlanta Somalis Escape to Maine, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Aug. 18, 2002, p. A1. Mark Bixler, Concerns About Crime, Kids’ Future Led to Move, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Aug. 18, 2002, p. A10.)
October 2002: Lewiston Mayor Laurier “Larry” Raymond writes a letter to the Somalis, asking them to stop coming. “The Somali community must exercise some discipline and reduce the stress on our limited finances and our generosity,” he wrote, asking them to “please pass the word: We have been overwhelmed and have responded valiantly. Now we need breathing room. Our city is maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally.”
The Somalis wrote back, with feelings “ranging from dismay, astonishment and anger,” and called the letter “inflammatory” and “disturbing.” They also explained the fine things they have done for Lewiston: “For your information, therefore, our coming to Lewiston and living here have revitalized this city in certain ways. Our presence has turned Lewiston into a multi-ethnic, multi-racial city, which has embraced diversity and change. A city of thirty-six thousand people, in the middle of the ‘whitest’ state in the country, has suddenly become an international city . . . Our presence here have [sic] also attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal funds to boost existing social services for all residents of Lewiston.”
The mayor shouldn’t be concerned with Somali indigence, because “[O]ut of the 416 able-bodied men and women 215 persons are currently employed. This is over 50% of adults who could work.”
They also pointed out that they are in the country legally and have the right to live anywhere they like. The Somalis conclude by calling the mayor a bigot who is trying to “agitate” and “incite” the people of Lewiston into violence. They said they would hold the mayor responsible “if any harm in form [sic] of an attack happens to any Somali-American man, woman or child.”
Somalis are already mixing it up with the natives. On Oct. 3, a drunken brawl broke out between Lewistonians and Somalis, during which, one or more Somalis slashed 21-year-old Troy Berry. Police aren’t sure what prompted the fight, but arrested three young Somalis for aggravated assault, and two Lewistonians for disorderly conduct. The fight was just the latest in a series of violent confrontations in downtown Lewiston in recent weeks. (Lisa Chmelecki, Immigrants Say Letter a Bigoted Act, Lewiston Sun Journal, Oct. 8, 2002. Text of Letter from Somali Community, Lewiston Sun Journal, Oct. 8, 2002. Mark LaFlamme, Supporters and Critics Alike Say the Issue Won’t Go Away, Lewiston Sun Journal, Oct. 8, 2002. Scott Taylor, Mayor Appeals to Somalis to Stem Migration, Lewiston Sun Journal, Oct. 4, 2002. Lewiston Mayor’s Letter to Somali Community, Lewiston Sun Journal, Oct. 4, 2002. Mark LaFlamme, Lewiston Man Knifed in Brawl; 5 Charged, Lewiston Sun Journal, Oct. 4, 2002.)
June 2003: City officials in Lewiston, Maine, are reporting a significant downturn in the number of new Somali refugees moving there. Since September 2002, new arrivals have averaged fewer than ten a month. During the previous year, the number was 40 a month. Some say the Somalis no longer feel welcome in Lewiston since last October when Mayor Larry Raymond wrote a letter asking them to go somewhere else. Others say the winters in Maine are too cold for Somalis. Still others think it’s because there aren’t many jobs in Lewiston (the Somali unemployment rate is 50 percent). Whatever the reason, Lewiston’s respite may be short-lived. Somali leaders say as many as 200 Somalis may move to Lewiston from Columbus, Ohio, this summer. (Somali Immigration into Lewiston Drops Significantly Since Fall, AP, June 26, 2003.)
February 2006: Even five years after their arrival, the unemployment rate for Somalis in Lewiston is still “easily over 50 percent,” according to one assistant city administrator. However, “the city does not have an exact figure because it has trouble tracking the demographics of the Somali population.” (David A. Fahrenthold, English Key to Jobs for Somalis, City Says, Washington Post, Feb. 28, 2006)
July 2006: The Somali share of Lewiston’s population is said to reach nearly ten percent. (Scott Brooks, As a Refugee Destination, Manchester Isn’t Alone, Manchester Union-Leader, July 2, 2006.)
Spring 2007: With some 30 new Somalis arriving every month, Lewiston has become meaningfully and apparently changed. Lisbon Street, Lewiston’s main thoroughfare, now has a mosque, Somali restaurants, and two halal grocery stores. Women in hijabs and burkas are a common sight. Most Somalis are still on welfare, and intend to stay on it as long as they can. When the president of the city council offered to hire 30 Somalis at $8.00 an hour to hold traffic signs at road construction sites, she got few takers — and they wanted to work only half days. Even if they wanted jobs, there is not much Somalis know how to do.
Many Lewistonians wish the Somalis would go away. Last summer, a man rolled a pig’s head into a Somali mosque. He was charged with desecrating a place of worship, and later committed suicide after a standoff with police. In April, a white middle school student tossed a piece of ham onto a table where Somali students were eating. Administrators suspended him, and the Maine attorney general considered but did not file hate crime charges. (Roger McGrath, The Great Somali Welfare Hunt, The American Conservative, Nov. 24, 2002. Jerry Harkavy, A Maine City’s Somalis Facing Cultural Divide, AP, May 11, 2007.)
December 2009: An increase of Somali crime is reported on by local news:
In the early evening on the first day of summer, a large group of Somali boys approached a woman on the corner of Ash and Pierce streets. According to police reports, they intimidated the woman and slapped her in the back of the head before scattering into the downtown.
Five days later, shortly after midnight, a man was accosted by a group of Somali boys outside the Big Apple on Main Street. Police reports say several members of the group punched the man and took money from him. They then fled in a car.
Later that night, a woman in her late 60s was beaten by a group of Somali boys and relieved of cash while walking in Kennedy Park.
Five nights later, another man was jumped by a group of similar description. He resisted the gang and was beaten badly. He required surgery.
Throughout the summer, similar reports have come into the Police Department. Witnesses and investigators say swarms of Somali boys, some as young as 8, others in their late teens, overwhelm solitary victims through sheer numbers.
“It’s not gang activity in the traditional sense,” Deputy Chief James Minkowsky said. “We’re not seeing the colors or the monikers, but it’s still a gang mentality.”
Often, these gang members carry sticks and rocks with which to intimidate their victims. There are often four or five of them, sometimes as many as a dozen. Typically, they threaten or beat their victims until they give up the goods: money, bicycles, cell phones, prescription drugs, or other items of value.
Then they scatter.
The write-up dryly notes, “While investigating the ambush-style attacks, police have little to compare them with, at least locally. A search of assaults dating back to spring revealed no incidents of a similar nature involving non-Somalis.” (Mark LaFlamme, Police Investigate Somali Attacks, Sun Journal, December 17, 2009)
Community leaders are demanding the resignation of a Maine mayor who said Somali immigrants living in his city should “accept our culture and leave your culture at the door.”
Organizers of Maine People’s Alliance say the group has collected at least 1,400 signatures calling for Lewiston Mayor Robert E. Macdonald to step down over his remarks in September to the British Broadcasting Corp. that Somali immigrants were costing his city a lot of money, then saying they should “accept our culture and leave your culture at the door.” (Sevil Omer, Somalis ‘Should Leave Culture at Door’ Remark by Maine Mayor Stirs Outrage, NBC News, October 5, 2012)
Mayor Macdonald did not step down. Instead, he won reelection in 2013 and again in 2015, each time appealing to Middle American values. As the New York Times scolded, “[he] wants to deny welfare payments to asylum seekers and has called for publicizing the names of welfare recipients.” (Katharine Q. Seelye, Robert E. Macdonald Wins 3rd Term as Mayor of Lewiston, Maine, New York Times, Dec. 8, 2015)
From the Mogadishu market to the women in brightly colored veils walking their children to school, Maine’s second-largest city shows the signs of the growing Somali-American community that is making its mark on the former New England mill town.
One place in Lewiston where that growing diversity is not evident is the city’s 82-member police force, but Chief Michael Bussiere aims to change that amid an intense national debate over race and policing.
With about a quarter of his officers due to become eligible to retire in the next few years, Bussiere has begun reaching out to the region’s 7,000-strong Somali population, including many who arrived in the United States as refugees from the East African country’s long civil war.
“We have to think about who is living here now and who’s going to live here 10 years from now. We need a department that is reflective of the demographics of the community it serves,” Bussiere said during an interview at his office.
. . .
Bussiere’s recruiting meetings, both with Somali residents and other community groups, emphasize that securing a job with the Lewiston police department is a competitive process, that candidates need college education and fluent English and could benefit from experience in the military or other law enforcement agencies.
He said he is starting the recruiting now with hopes of giving potential candidates time to prepare ahead of an expected wave of openings that may be two to three years away.
Even with those caveats, Somali residents of Lewiston said they welcome the approach.
“When you’re trying to live in a place, then you need to look like that place,” said Zam Zam Mohamud, who serves on the city’s school board. “If we have Somali police officers, Somali lawyers, Somali judges . . . That is a sign the community is assimilating, people are feeling comfortable.” (Scott Malone, Maine City’s Police Turn to Somali Immigrants as Diversity Grows, Reuters, June 5, 2015)
September 2016: Wealth redistribution in favor of Somalis continues:
The United States Department of Agriculture is committing nearly $400,000 to increase food access for the Somali community in Lewiston. . . The funding is expected to support Somalis’ agriculture and help them reconnect with their cultural heritage. . . The USDA says the objectives of the project include building the capacity of the Somali Bantu community and its farmers to produce food and address the problem of limited food access. The agency describes the Somali Bantu community as the poorest community in the city. (Associated Press, USDA funds effort to curb food insecurity for Maine Somalis, September 29, 2016)
And in more than one way:
The federal Office on Violence Against Women is giving a Maine immigration resource center $300,000 for sexual assault and domestic violence advocacy in the immigrant community. The money is going to Immigration Resource Center of Maine, which is located in Lewiston. The center was formerly called the United Somali Women of Maine. (Associated Press, Help for sexual assault services for East African immigrants, September 29, 2016)
The second-largest city in Maine, home to thousands of African newcomers, has elected a Somali American to its city council following a campaign that was marred by racists [sic] attacks and threats fueled by social media.
Safiya Khalid, 23, soundly defeated a fellow Democrat on Tuesday for a seat on the Lewiston City Council.
Shrugging off attacks on her skin color and faith, Khalid declared that “community organizers beat internet trolls.”
The attacks didn’t seem to faze voters. Khalid won with nearly 70% of the vote to make history in the former mill city. (David Sharp, Somali who was target of threats wins US municipal election, Associated Press, November 7, 2019)
2020: Because of its small size, the crime statistics for Lewiston do not immediately raise red flags: Per Neighborhood Scout, the crime rate per 1,000 residents is 18.97, and it’s safer than 32 percent of American cities. The impact of Somalis only comes into relief when you compare it to other New England towns of a similar size that are still white. Watertown, Massachusetts is a good example. Its black population is less than two percent, and its crime rate per 1,000 residents is 8.79, and it’s safer than 66 percent of American cities.
Lewiston serves as a warning to what can happen to any white community in just a matter of years. Our job is to make sure its lessons are heeded.