LEWISTON — Nimo Yonis moved here as a freshman in high school in 2002. It was hard at first, she said, but now, this is home.
Her family fled Africa when she was 6.
"The Somali community appreciates the chance offered to us to live in the city," Yonis, 26, said, standing in front of City Hall's steps in the rain. "Mr. Mayor, we are an example of the American Dream."
Behind her, signs read, "We want a sincere apology," "You're everyone's mayor" and "Lewiston is better than this."
The Maine People's Alliance led a rally and delivered a petition to City Hall on Thursday morning with about 200 handwritten signatures and 1,200 others online asking for Mayor Robert Macdonald to apologize to the community, then step down.
He's under fire for a series of remarks aimed at the city's immigrant population, capped with a comment aired on the BBC in September to "leave your culture at the door."
In the last decade, thousands of Somali immigrants have settled in Lewiston.
"Mr. Mayor, this remark was painful, hurtful and displayed your ignorance about our community," said Jama Mohamed, communications director for Somali Bantu Youth. "You need to own your own mistake and to be a responsible leader and to come out and accept you made a mistake."
"We want to work with you," he said. "We consider ourselves Lewistonian."
Confronted at a City Council meeting Tuesday, Macdonald said his remarks had been taken out of context. He declined to apologize and said he wouldn't be talking to the media about the topic further.
On Thursday, he couldn't be reached for comment.
Louis Morin, whose parents emigrated from Canada, said Somalis have shown a willingness to adapt and open businesses. He pointed to the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, built and paid for by French-Canadian immigrants.
"Who's to say what similar contributions to Lewiston our Somali neighbors might one day make?" he asked.
City Councilor Craig Saddlemire said he wished he could apologize on behalf of the mayor.
"I do want to apologize that we still have to deal with this in 2012," he said. "Statements from public officials should not be making any member of the community feel excluded, feel bad about who they are, about who they are because they are different. This is something we should be beyond."
At a news conference inside the City Council Chamber after the rally, President Mark Cayer read a statement supported by all seven councilors. Macdonald's comments don't represent the council or Lewiston, he said.
"People are people, period," Cayer read. "There is no room for separation of us or them."
Asked whether the mayor should resign, he said, "That is a decision that needs to be made between the public and Mayor Macdonald. ... The Lewiston city charter has no recall process. The way you get recalled in Lewiston is the next election."
Macdonald, elected in a runoff race after he beat a candidate who died, is one year into a two-year term.
Cayer said he had "encouraged (Macdonald) to keep the community as a whole in his thought process when he's making comments directed toward any specific group."
One elected official should not tell another what to do, he said, but if Cayer were faced with a similar situation, "regardless of whether I felt I was right or wrong in that position, if I knew I offended or hurt somebody's feelings, I personally would apologize."
Yonis, a community organizer with the African Immigrants Association, said she wanted an apology to move Lewiston forward.
"I'm very glad that I'm here," she said. "I'm not going anywhere. We're not going anywhere."