LEWISTON — A new organization led by high-schoolers wants to change people’s minds.
The African Youth Alliance, with a group of founders no older than 21, is hoping to change some current stereotypes surrounding immigrant youths in Lewiston, and possibly steer fellow students away from violence and bad decisions.
An open house Friday celebrated the group’s first physical space, a room on the second floor of 180 Lisbon St. that was donated to the alliance by the owners of Forage Market.
A few chairs and couches surround a set of speakers blaring music, and art and flags representing African nations hang on the walls.
Jordy Dushime, a senior at Lewiston High School, is the coordinator of the group.
Dushime, 18, came to Lewiston from the East African country of Burundi two years ago. He’s hoping the African Youth Alliance can be a place other immigrant youths go to feel welcome, where they can learn from each other and adapt to a new home or new language. He said he wishes it had existed when he first arrived.
“We want them to be ahead a few steps,” he said. “Our mission revolves around integration into American society. Not just education, but learning about living in Lewiston, American culture and just being a new Mainer.”
Dushime said the founders want it to be a welcoming place for youths to go after school to hang out or do homework. It will offer tutoring, language and computer skills. They’re still seeking donations of books for a small library, and more furniture.
“A lot of the parents don’t even speak English, so they can’t help their kids with studying,” he said. “I’m a senior so we can tutor, if you need help.”
In an email about the group, Dushime described its mission as “committed to reversing the reputation of African youth here in Lewiston by discouraging violence and promoting education.”
He described the Lisbon Street location as “a safe place for the youth to invest their time productively, a place where they can build friendships and learn from each other.”
Dushime said the founder of the group, Michee Kikobo, approached him at school this past August, when tensions over recent violence in downtown Lewiston were still high.
Kikobo was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and arrived in Lewiston around the same time as Dushime. The founders decided they wanted to help eliminate the stigma around African immigrants — especially African youths — in Lewiston.
“We wanted to showcase ourselves in other ways,” he said.
Djamal Maldoum, the group’s vice president and a sophomore at Central Maine Community College, was greeting guests Friday, offering pieces of colorful fabric that he said were inspired by the popular comic book film “Black Panther.”
In the future, the alliance plans to host guest speakers, including Lewiston police officers, to chat with youths. This Christmas, they’re planning to host a community event at which kids can learn how people from all over the world celebrate the holiday.
An African Youth Alliance banner on the wall in the new space reads, “Solidarity, education, development.”
Tyryce Schnitker, a youth alliance founder and a high school senior, was documenting the open house event on camera and working social media accounts. He said they want to attract the 13-and-up age group — perhaps a sister program to Tree Street Youth more catering to teenagers.
Maldoum, an asylum-seeker from Chad, has been in Lewiston since 2014. He’s studying architecture at CMCC. He said he’s seen some issues in the city worsen since he arrived, and he’s hoping the youth alliance can provide a place where teens can seek friendships and positive attitudes.
“I think kids are more likely to listen to a friend than their parents,” he said.
The group held its first event in October, where dozens of members of the immigrant and refugee community held a celebration at the Nutrition Center on Bates Street. Dushime said they were surprised by the turnout and the amount of feedback they received on what the organization’s focus should be.
Dushime is now well-versed in combating image issues. This school year he joined the Lewiston Youth Advisory Council, a group of high-schoolers that works with city officials on a range of topics. In addition to that, Dushime is a member of various school clubs and he plays tennis.
Bill Webster, Lewiston’s superintendent of schools, said Friday that while not familiar with the African Youth Alliance, he knows how much young people are doing to combat image issues in the city.
That includes the long-running Lewiston Youth Advisory Council. He said the youth council has spent years coming up with ways to dispel negative stereotypes of Lewiston.
“I think organizations that bring people out and allow these discussions and work to improve our community are wonderful, and I hope to continue to see good turnout for these things and to have more of them,” he said.
Following the violence this past summer, Webster was involved with members of the immigrant community in planning a series of meetings and the “Peace in the Park” initiative that put community safety volunteers in Kennedy Park.
He said the African Youth Alliance, like the prior programs, “is part of the work that needs to be done to improve community relations and image.”
African Youth Alliance Vice President Djamal Maldoum draws henna on Anthony Bailey of Lewiston during an open house on Lisbon Street in Lewiston on Friday. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
African Youth Alliance Vice President Djamal Maldoum, left, draws henna on Hani Mohamed of Auburn as Anthony Bailey of Lewiston looks on during an open house on Lisbon Street in Lewiston on Friday. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)