LEWISTON — “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
These words of Martin Luther King Jr., spoken half a century ago, are relevant today as Lewiston continues to grow more diverse.
Citizens here have made strides in creating an atmosphere of races co-existing, said Phil Nadeau, a retired deputy city administrator who for years was the city’s leader on immigrant relations.
Somali residents agree that race relations have improved, but they say more work needs to be done. Black individuals still face hatred on a daily basis, said Jama Mohamed. “But this does not mean we should accuse one group,” he said.
“Private citizens and immigrants alike have made strides to integrate and coexist in this beautiful community,” said ZamZam Mohamud. However, she added, there’s still some prejudice, still some hardship.
Key to overcoming such barriers, she said, is “people assisting others with a hand, or even advice.”
These Lewiston residents are part of a surge of African immigration that began in 2001. In 2000, Lewiston’s black population numbered a couple of hundred. Today, it is between 6,000 and 7,000, among a total of 36,000 residents, the majority from Somali families, Nadeau said.
Over time, many more immigrants have come to Lewiston from other African nations. In one of the nation’s whitest states, Lewiston has become a global community.
The number of English language learner students in Lewiston schools has skyrocketed, from a handful in 2001 to 28.4 percent of the student population in 2017. At the high school, the student population represents 38 nations, said Aspirations Coordinator Doug Dumont. He said the diverse student population “is a tremendous asset to Lewiston High School.”
Twenty years ago, there was little diversity in the city, Nadeau said. “Anyone who lived here knows that. Everybody knows the story of how things changed,” with the first wave of Somali immigrants arriving in 2001 escaping their war-torn country and refugee camps in Kenya.
Unlike other immigrant resettlements, “they chose us,” and came to Lewiston to escape the noise, crime and higher costs associated with larger cities.
But it was a rough start.
Soon after Somali immigrants began arriving in February 2001, the attacks of 9/11 occurred. The movie “Black Hawk Down” was playing. People feared Muslims. The community, Nadeau said, “didn’t understand who our new residents were. It was a very different time.”
Racial slurs were hurled at local Muslims, a pig’s head was tossed into a mosque, white supremacists visited Lewiston. And all of this generated national and international news coverage.
Due to the work of many — black and white, immigrants and locals, public and private organizations — race relations have improved and changed Lewiston’s story, according to Nadeau.
By 2010, Steve Wessler of the former Center for Preventing Hate said Lewiston-Auburn’s efforts to snuff out prejudice had made it a leader in the nation. Lessons learned here were being shared with other communities.
“The eyes of the world were on us, and that was not by design,” Nadeau said. “It continues to this day. We still have global interest in what goes on here. It’s extraordinary.”
Nadeau said media outlets from across the country and planet, including Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and China, have come to Lewiston to learn how the city has improved race relations.
“I continue to be blown away by conversations I have with people from around the country who know the story about Lewiston,” Nadeau said. “We are now part of a global discussion.”
Some of the stories include:
• Lewiston High School’s soccer team, which has won the state title twice with a roster that includes many Somali immigrants.
• A growing number of immigrant students are graduating from high school and college.
• Lewiston’s Fatuma Hussein, founder of Immigrant Resource Center, was given an honorary degree from Bowdoin College in 2017. Her organization started as the United Somali Women of Maine. Begun with volunteers, it has grown to a full-time staff.
• The Maine Immigration and Refugee Services, which began as the Somali Bantu Association of Maine. Led by Rilwan Osman, it started with volunteers who worked out of a van to improve the behavior and education of youth through soccer and tutoring. Today, it has also grown to a full-time staff.
• ZamZam Mohamud, who moved to Lewiston in 2001, is considered one of the area’s most beloved residents. A translator and health-care worker, she was the first Somali to hold public office, having been elected to the Lewiston School Committee in 2014. She was featured in a 2015 cover story in Down East magazine that described her as one who united people.
• Tree Street Youth Center, a private, nonprofit, drop-in education-and-enrichment center founded by two Bates College graduates, expanded both its building and programs in 2017. It operates through community support and, largely, grants and donations.
Lewiston Community Resource Police Officer Joe Philippon said he has noticed more people making efforts to know their neighbors during academies involving residents and police.
Last year, the Lewiston Police Department hosted two academies.
“Both had a very diverse group of participants,” Philippon said, adding that it was refreshing to watch people introduce themselves, ask questions of each other, learn about other cultures and experience ethnic foods.
The final session features potluck suppers. The next academy is scheduled for Feb. 13. “We’re accepting applications,” Philippon said.
When it comes to crime, Lewiston’s black immigrant population is growing while the crime rate is declining, Philippon said.
“You’d expect with an increasing youth population, that juvenile crime would be going up. That’s not the case,” he said. “Youth crime remains low.”
Mohamed Heban moved to Lewiston in 2002 from Atlanta. He and his wife have raised five children in Lewiston and own the Baraka Store on Lisbon Street. “It’s great,” Heban said of living in Lewiston. “The majority of people are good, friendly neighbors.” (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)