LEWISTON — With speeches, food and dance, the Somali Bantu community Saturday celebrated its 10th anniversary of calling Lewiston home.
At the celebration at Longley Elementary School, congratulatory speeches were given by Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, and Colby College professor Catherine Bestemen, who lived with Somali Bantus before Somalia’s civil war.
Muhidin Libah, 36, was among the first Somali Bantus to come to Lewiston in 2005. Today, he’s the executive director of the Somali Bantu Community Mutual Assistance Association.
Despite a hard life, he seems to smile all the time.
“Lewiston is our home,” he said. Here he and others have done something they couldn’t do in Africa: organize and make things happen.
The Somali Bantu Community Mutual Assistance Association has created programs in farming, conflict resolution, financial literacy and women’s empowerment. Another organization, the Somali Bantu Youth Association of Maine, has provided soccer leagues, tutoring, English-speaking classes and citizenship classes.
“I’m really happy we’ve been able to bring all our people together in a place we can help them,” Libah said. Things people take for granted, such as running water and school for all children, are luxuries they didn’t have in Kenya or Somalia.
“How far we’ve come as a community is huge,” said Rilwan Osman, who co-founded the Somali Bantu Youth Association. Bantus have not had the kind of success in other states that they have had in Lewiston, Osman said.
“In 2006-2007 we had no high school graduations,” Osman said. “Now our kids are graduating from high school and going to college. To me that is huge.”
There are two groups of Somali refugees in Lewiston, the ethnic Somalis who first arrived in 2001, and the Somali Bantus who began arriving in 2005.
The earlier group had exposure to education in their country; the Bantus did not. Before the war, they farmed in rural villages.
Libah moved to Lewiston after one year in upstate New York and 20 years in a Kenyan refugee camp. He pointed out that the Bantu community here doesn’t have many old people. Many didn’t make it.
When Libah was a boy, he fled war-torn Somalia with his family, walking nonstop for 12 days to Kenya. It was dangerous. The weak and old died along the way, he said.
“There was no food, no water,” he said. “You faced a lot of animals that wanted to eat you.”
In the refugee camps, life was hard; the Bantus were treated poorly. Women were raped. They were defenseless. Still, in the camps Libah married, became a father and worked as a shoemaker. Determined to get an education, he also attended school, starting his first class at age 15.
By the time he came to New York in 2004, he passed his GED exam in the first sitting. In Lewiston, he’s graduated from Central Maine Community College and the University of Southern Maine.
Forging a new community in Lewiston had challenges, Libah said. A big one was helping their children succeed in school.
In 2006 and 2007 Somali Bantu students got more “white cards,” meaning they were written up for disciplinary action, than any other group at Lewiston Middle School, Libah said. Bantu youth had little or no school experience.
In 2007 he and others organized a “Camp Middle Jubba” summer school. With help from retired teachers, their young got a crash course in schoolwork and behavior.
The efforts paid off. “Today they are good students,” Libah said with a smile.
Jamilo Maalin, 21, is a Somali Bantu who graduated from Lewiston High School with the Class of 2013. Today, she’s a mother and has a full-time job. She became a U.S. citizen in May.
Her daughter played in the cafeteria as people ate buur, a sweet bread, and sambusa. Maalin remembered her early days in Lewiston as a young girl when there wasn’t much of a community. “It was school, home. School, home. That was it.”
She remembers attending Camp Middle Jubba, and how things improved. “I love my life,” she said. “I love Lewiston.”