Making Maine Home
A new collaborative book chronicles the experience of the thousands of Somali refugees who moved to Lewiston and Portland over t
- By: Agnes Bushell
In the eighteen years between 1982 and 2000, 315 Somali refugees settled in Portland, Maine. By 2002, that number had increased by more than a thousand. These new arrivals did not come directly from Somalia, but from other parts of the United States in what is called a secondary migration. At the same time, a number of Somali families, numbering fewer than one hundred people, relocated from Portland to Lewiston. Today, 3,500 Somali refugees, most of whom are secondary migrants, make Lewiston their home.
Why have so many Somalis chosen to come to Maine, and to the city of Lewiston in particular? And how are Mainers responding to them? These are only two of the many important questions posed by Kimberly A. Huisman, Mazie Hough, Kristin M. Langellier, and Carol Nordstrom Toner, the editors of Somalis in Maine: Crossing Cultural Currents (North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California; paperback; 372 pages; $27.95). The book, an intriguing collection of essays, scholarly articles, and personal narratives, is the result of a fruitful collaboration between University of Maine faculty members, Somali students, and members of the Somali community. Each selection offers a wealth of information. Some of the articles are overly academic, dense, and repetitive, but dipping into them can yield valuable insights. More rewarding, however, are the personal narratives, which give readers an intimate look into the lives, hopes, fears, and humor of young Somali-Americans. These stories offer readers a wonderful introduction to a new generation of Americans whose lives and experiences too often remain hidden or inaccessible to many of us.
In her article, “Why Maine? Secondary Migration Decisions of Somalis in Maine,” Kimberly Huisman, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maine, raises the major question this book attempts to answer. “At first glance,” she writes, “it is perplexing. After all, Maine is cold, it is overwhelmingly white, there are few Muslims, wages tend to fall below national averages, and the economy is struggling.” That puts it rather succinctly. Huisman offers a well-researched account of Somali immigration to the state from places as diverse as Atlanta, Minneapolis, Chicago, Columbus, Boston, and Dallas. Not surprisingly, she finds that many Somali families relocate to Maine for the same reason other families do: because it is a safe place to raise children.
And, equally unsurprisingly, young Somalis, like other young Mainers, are likely to leave because there are no employment opportunities. In the case of Somalis, racism also plays a role in their decisions. Lewiston, after all, attained national and international notoriety in October, 2002, when then-mayor Laurier Raymond issued a controversial open letter to the Somali community asking them to discourage their relatives from moving to Lewiston. (The full text of this letter is included in the appendix.) Even though the ultimate effect of this letter was to mobilize public support for the refugees, climaxing in a march of 4,500 supporters in January 2003, Somalis report that racism still exists in Maine. As one recent college graduate reported to Huisman, “It’s exhausting . . . being Somali and living in Lewiston because it’s not just limelight, it’s kind of like a shining, beaming spotlight that goes with you wherever you go . . . It’s almost like [I have] a craving for invisibility.”
Somalis in Maine covers an amazing array of subjects: leadership in the Somali community, gender issues, education, and barriers to employment, which, for Somali women, for example, include their need to wear specific items of clothing, like the hijab.
The section about storytelling is especially fascinating. Among many of the interesting nuggets of information this section contains, one struck me in particular: that Somalis did not have a written language until the 1970s.
This is why storytelling is such an inherent part of Somali culture. One of the great fears of older Somalis is that, in the United States, their children will lose the rich oral tradition of their culture, or, in the gap between the older Somali-speaking generation and the younger English-speaking one, the stories will be lost.
The stories told here are stories of suffering and danger and finding a new home. They are new stories, not old ones. They are, however, without doubt, the most vital and poignant sections of this volume. A reader might ask for more stories and pictures and fewer statistics and analysis, but given the abysmal lack of information about our Somali neighbors, this book, with all its odd shifts in tone and its sometimes confusing mix of genres, is still a gift. Buy it for its informative statistics, but read it, like a Somali, for its stories.
- By: Agnes Bushell