LEWISTON — Bates College hosted a panel discussion Monday evening with community leaders, students and local immigration activists on the past, present and future of the local Somali community.
The title was "Understanding Barriers to Integration for Immigrants in Lewiston-Auburn."
Members of the panel included former Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert, City Councilor Craig Saddlemire, Fatuma Hussein of United Somali Women of Maine, and anthropology lecturer Heather Lindkvist.
The discussion centered around the early Somali settlement of Lewiston leading up to the Many and One rally in 2003 and how far Lewiston, as a community, has come since then.
Gilbert said, "The Many and One rally was a good start for making the new Mainers feel welcome," while it sent a strong message to the hate group present that they were not welcome. "They were vastly outnumbered and went home."
Of his childhood, Gilbert told the group how he spoke French in the home but increasingly spoke English to "fit in." As a child, he had heard those who did not speak fluent English referred to as "dumb Frenchmen" and he didn't want to be judged by his language skills. He went on to read the honor roll from a local school, one full of Somali children, and said, "This is our future."
Gilbert addressed how each ethnic community from the Irish, to the French, to the Somalis has been treated.
"We have a way here," Gilbert said, "of shutting the door behind us." He stressed dialogue and for people of faith to also be responsible for closing the gap. He said he learned to say, "Peace be with you," in their native language. They would respond, "And also with you," and shake his hand. This, according to Gilbert, is a shared expression of faith between the communities.
Saddlemire said that since 2003, the change in the community has been for the better.
"I was there for the rally in '03," he said, "I participated." He told the group how, when working with a Realtor in the downtown area, attitudes were still soured. The Realtor, according to Saddlemire, was sure to tell him where a building owner had refused to rent to Somalis.
Saddlemire credited the local Somali community businesses for being instrumental in the changes that have taken place over the last decade but warned that it was up to everyone to dispel false rumors of imagined benefits and stereotypes when they hear them.
Hussein cited Many and One as a turning point for the whole community.
"We're here and the sooner people realize that, the better," Hussein said.
"Many and One set a solid foundation for many to work together as one community," Hussein said. She cautioned that the immediate effect of the rally had cooled over time.
She referred to integration as a slow process. "When I come to Lewiston, not speaking English, not employed, not educated, the gap is already there," Hussein said. She looks to the second generation to fill that gap; the children of the now established community who will grow up with, and in cultural exchange with, the older community.
Hussein referred to Lisbon Street today as a "colorful" place, where drapes hang in business windows, showing their wares. She sees acculturation as a goal but one the hard-working people of Somalia are up for. "That is courage," Hussein said, "to pick up and move on."
Lindkvist spoke of how, before Many and One, there were women and children who were afraid to go out into the community. She said it created barriers for all involved because it prevented interactions with the community.
She also addressed how some feelings about immigration may have been pushed beneath the surface.
"Feelings need to be addressed," Lindkvist said, "or we will face micro-aggressions" and other small, explosive outbursts between community members.
Looking forward, Lindkvist said, "It's powerful to see things shift," and crediting a bright, resilient community, "we need to acknowledge the accomplishments of the Somali community."