Lewiston celebrates immigrant community

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LEWISTON — Mahamed Mahamud stepped up to the lectern, gazed out at the 300 or so eyes staring up at him, and said what everyone else seemed to be thinking.

“It has been 10 whole years,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “A full decade; can you believe it? It feels like it happened yesterday.”

Enthusiastic nods and murmurs of agreement all around. Ten years have come and gone since a group called “Many and One” gathered in a show of force to counter a hate rally on the other side of Lewiston. Ten years, and so much has happened since.

Mahamud summed it up nicely, but that’s not all he said. The former owner of the Three and One Cafe delivered a speech so passionate, the crowd of 150 broke out in applause several times before he was done.

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Mahamud remembers the events of Jan. 11, 2003, with a gratitude that still moves him. It was on that day that members of the white supremacist group World Church of the Creator came to Maine to call for the ouster of Somalis from Lewiston.

The hate group was big, but the local response was bigger. Thousands turned out at Bates College’s Merrill Gymnasium in counter-protest, an outpouring that is still regarded as a turning point for the immigrants in Lewiston.

And don’t think Mahamud has forgotten.

“This town,” he said, “is the best town. They showed us how they respect and support us. They gave us whatever we needed. I will never forget this day. Never in my life will I forget.”

Applause thundered through the halls of the Lewiston Public Library, but Mahamud wasn’t done. He had 10 years worth of thankfulness and he meant to share it.

“This is a town of positive people,” he said. “Thank you very much, people of Lewiston. Thank you, people of Maine. This place gave me opportunity, freedom and peace. They gave me what I couldn’t get in my own country. I feel like they are my family. Together, we make happiness. Together, we make whatever we want.”

The applause was louder this time and the audience got to its feet. On the other side of the room, Mahamud’s wife clutched her hands to her face and beamed. A few others swiped away tears.

The Many and One anniversary celebration was officially under way.

The theme became apparent early on: The most beautiful thing about the rally in 2003, they said, is that it was only the beginning.

“The rally was just a start,” said the Rev. Mark Schlotterbeck, co-founder of the Many and One rally. “It was just a day in a string of days. It was enough to give a person hope.”

Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau remembered the events that led up to the day in question. It didn’t seem to be much at first glance. Portland had a population problem and Lewiston leaders were asked if they could take on a few immigrant families. 

“It was a fairly innocuous event,” Nadeau said. “You never know that you’re part of some historic event until much later on.”

People from all over the world noticed, too. Before, during and after the rally in 2003, Lewiston was frequently in the media spotlight as leaders formulated a plan to welcome waves of immigrants. There was the hate rally and the Many and One response. There was former Mayor Larry Raymond’s letter to the Somali community, asking its leaders to slow the migration. There was incident after incident as more immigrants arrived and the city suffered a period of adjustment.

“That’s the beginning of the story,” Nadeau said. “But it’s not the best part. The best part is what happened after.”

Lewiston became known, not as a city in turmoil, but as one that deftly handled the problems that came with the growing Somali population, Nadeau said. Other communities began turning to Lewiston for advice. Even the federal government sought out city leaders for guidance.

“We became an All-America community because of all the work we did during that period,” Nadeau said. “Everybody raised their game, and by raising our game, we raised the hopes and desires of the community.”

When the World Church of the Creator members climbed back in their vans and left town, nobody believed that the hard work was done, said Bates College lecturer Heather Lindkvist. There was more to do and groups like Many and One kept at it.

“The coalition was sustained beyond that one event,” she said. And when issues of bigotry and intolerance rise up in the community, “we still come together and say we will not tolerate this.”

For Nadeau, who has traveled around the country sharing his experiences with other city leaders, remembering all that transpired is important. Not just the rally and counter-rally, but the very day Lewiston agreed to accept groups of immigrant into the community.

“You can almost point to the very day that things began to change in Lewiston,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary thing.”

mlaflamme@sunjournal.com

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