LEWISTON — An effort to inventory and assess immigrant and refugee services in Lewiston — the first since 2002 – has yielded a 66-page report that will be presented to the City Council on Tuesday.
Among the biggest takeaways, according to those involved, is the importance of language services, whether that means better access to interpreters and adult English-language learner programs that can lead to more employment opportunities, or on-the-job training.
“Language access is incredibly important and can be immobilizing if not widely available,” City Council President Kristen Cloutier said. “It affects everything from accessing health care services, to being able to communicate with your child’s teacher, to filling out a job application — things that many of us may take for granted.”
The discussion on language access is one of 10 topics covered in the report, which was compiled by the Immigrant and Refugee Integration and Policy Development Working Group over the past year.
The working group included several leaders of the immigrant and refugee community, as well as service providers, city staff and elected officials. Dozens of meetings were held throughout 2017, with members of the group inviting residents to discuss the various topics.
The report, available on the city’s website, lists the biggest “takeaways” from each of the topics, which include workforce development and employment, health care, higher education, food, housing and transportation, among others.
It also makes a series of recommendations for the City Council to consider.
One of them is to reinstate an immigrant/refugee program coordinator position on the city staff that was previously cut, although the working group hopes a current legislative bill would fund it with state dollars.
Cloutier, who also served as chairwoman of the working group, said compiling the report was overdue, given the significant immigrant and refugee population growth, and expansion of services, over the past 15 years.
She said an extensive overview or assessment of city services hasn’t been done since 2002, only a year after the first Somali immigrants began relocating to Lewiston.
“Given the rate and degree to which our immigrant and refugee population has grown in the last 16 years, that seems like a glaring oversight,” she said. “I hope some process will be put in place to help us keep track of these services going forward as the landscape continues to change.”
Cloutier and the working group are hoping that Lewiston officials will support a bill in the Legislature that would allocate state funding to establish an office in Lewiston similar to the New Mainers Resource Center in Portland. If the bill fails, the report says city officials could consider using Community Development Block Grant funds.
She said an office in Lewiston, with just one staff person, “could help us get more people into the workforce faster.”
Tuesday’s workshop, starting at 6 p.m. at City Hall, may spark a conversation about what the City Council is willing to pursue in terms of funding toward the specific needs listed in the report.
Phil Nadeau, the former deputy city administrator who was also liaison between the city and the immigrant community, said the 2002 report was drafted as a plea to then-Gov. Angus King for the state to assist with services for the new Mainers.
He called the new report “an inventory” on where we are and what needs exist.
In 2000, Lewiston’s black population numbered a couple of hundred. Today it is between 6,000 and 7,000, the majority from Somali families, Nadeau said.
Lewiston’s population is about 36,000.
The number of English language learner students in Lewiston schools has skyrocketed, from a few in 2001 to 28.4 percent in 2017.
Nadeau said in 2001, state agencies in Lewiston, and the city itself, were “poorly prepared” to handle services for the first immigrants and refugees that arrived. But, he said, following the initial report changes were made, organizations stepped up and “it’s very different today.”
The new report is important, Nadeau said, because there are still improvements that can be made.
“It’s assessing where we are today, which is a different set of circumstances from where we were in 2002,” he said. “It’s very timely because so much has really changed.”
Within the first few paragraphs of the report, it states that while the group was focused on the experience of immigrants and refugees in the community, “we learned valuable lessons about how our community programs are working for all of its residents.”
The process, the report states, “has provided an opportunity to make various governmental and organizational systems work better for everyone.”
Leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, several prominent voices within the immigrant community spoke about race relations in the city and how far Lewiston has come in its services for new Mainers.
Zam Zam Mohamud, a former School Committee member and first Somali to hold public office, said last week that “private citizens and immigrants alike have made strides to integrate and coexist in this beautiful community.”
But she added that there’s still some prejudice, still some hardship.
Nadeau said Monday that the report “does what it was intended to do, to distill a lot of information into a readable format.” But, he said, now it will be on elected officials and the public to decide how to prioritize the report’s recommendations.
“Everyone recognizes you can’t do everything on the list right away,” he said. “It’s going to be a process.”