Let’s get real, shall we?

As in fact, not fiction.

A huge number of online posts made in the past week relating to the recent incident at the Lewiston Middle School have asserted information based on rumors and myths kept alive despite available facts.

This preference of a small, but vocal, group of people to latch onto fiction instead of relying on fact has been a constant frustration for city officials, educators, business owners and others in the Twin Cities.

Here’s a pretty solid piece of advice from a Sun Journal blogger:

Posted By:JohnBerry at April 24, 2007 10:46 AM (Suggest Removal)

Times change. Many years ago, when other immigrant groups arrived in America, they were met with discrimination and barriers that I am sure everyone agrees were wrong. Our society has evolved and we, as a civil society, have said that no group will suffer the discrimination that many of our forbears endured. While most of the Somali immigrants have found employment or started businesses, some have not. Those who are unemployed get the assistance that we, citizens and elected leaders, have established to maintain the health and dignity of our citizens – whether new immigrant or Mayflower descendants. Nobody is living a lavish lifestyle at the expense of taxpayers. Nobody is being given cars and homes, as I have heard rumored. I have tried to become friendly with some of my Somali neighbors. With some I have succeeded and have regular conversations. With others I have not been successful, yet. But this is normal. I have become friendly with some of my French Canadian neighbors and with some I have not. Please, if you hear a rumor about immigrants living it up on taxpayer money ask the person to provide some real proof. If you are a person who sincerely wants to “live and let live” then the rumor will end there.

This poster’s point is quite reasonable. If you think you hear something unfair about preferential treatment, ask about it.

Based on recent posts, we picked some persistent myths and checked the facts:

License plate taunt

Myth: There is a pricey vehicle driven by a Somali with a license plate that reads “You Pay For It” in license plate shorthand.

Fact: There is no Maine license plate “You Pay For It,” or UPYD4IT or UPAY4IT registered in Maine, according to Bureau of Motor Vehicle records.

Grabbing free groceries

Myth: Somali families load up carts filled with groceries, go through the checkout line, and tell the clerk “have the government pay for it” and then walk out the door.

Fact: According to Karen Epstein, corporate spokesperson for Hannaford, “We have checked with both our Auburn and Lewiston stores, and neither have had this experience.”

“This has never happened in either of our stores,” Epstein said.

Judy Chong, spokesperson for Shaw’s supermarkets, checked with stores in Auburn and Lewiston and this has never occurred at either of those stores.

No pork for lunch

Myth: One or more Somali parents approached the school board and demanded that pork be removed from lunch menus in all school buildings.

Fact: “Not true,” according to Jim Handy, chairman of the Lewiston School Committee. “Not at all.”

“In fact,” Handy said, “several years ago when we first started having this influx of new immigrants from Muslim countries with a particular Islamic faith, we made every effort to communicate with them and get an understanding of what their needs were. At no time was there any suggestion proffered by our new citizens that we should do anything different to what we currently offer.”

Making a fortune

Myth: People like Mr. Wessler are making a fortune off this “Muslim issue.”

Fact: Stephen Wessler, executive director of the Center for the Study of Prevention and Hate Violence at the University of Southern Maine, said that between one-third to one-half of the nonprofit center’s funding comes from tax dollars and grants. The center also receives donations, including from the local Rotary clubs and chambers of commerce, but each year “struggles to meet expenses,” Wessler said.

Extra school funding

Myth: The schools receive additional tax funding for every Somali enrolled that is not provided to our children.

Fact: “Not that I’m aware of,” Handy said. “We get additional funding in some limited cases for ELL (English Language Learners) programs, but that’s not based on any particular ethnicity. I think we have over 16 different languages spoken in our schools.”

Maine’s school funding formula is a complicated equation of property values and student population and does not, Handy said, “break students down into ethnic groups.” It’s a strictly by-the-numbers equation.

Charity at City Hall

Myth: Catholic Charities has an office in Lewiston City Hall.

Fact: That’s true. It’s on the third floor.

“City Hall has been the intake point for new arrivals since the first families arrived,” Lewiston Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau said. “Recognizing that, we thought it might make sense that Catholic Charities” locate in City Hall to conduct its work.

The arrangement, Nadeau said, “saves the taxpayers money because they provide us with a position to do the receptionist work in general assistance,” while also managing cases for Catholic Charities.

Special prayer rooms

Myth: Lewiston provides special prayer rooms for Somali students in all the schools and allows students to disrupt classes when they leave to pray.

Fact: “There are no special prayer rooms” in any schools in Lewiston, according to Superintendent Leon Levesque.

“By law we permit students to leave (school), just like any religion, if there is a religious holiday. But no provisions are made for any religion over another. That’s not been an issue.”

No criminal convictions

Myth: The Somalis always have criminal charges dropped once they get to court because they are offered special rights by the court system.

Fact: “Every case,” according to Androscoggin County Deputy District Attorney Frank Turner, “is evaluated on the facts of the case” regardless of ethnicity or religion.

It is simply not true that charges against Somalis are dropped because they are afforded any special rights in Maine’s courts.

Free driver’s ed

Myth: Somalis are entitled to free driver’s education courses and do not pay for classes at driving schools.

Fact: Louise Barrett at Roy’s Driving Academy in Lewiston said no local company that offers driver’s ed instruction provides that service free to anyone, including Somali students. “They either pay for themselves or ASPIRE pays for it,” she said.

ASPIRE is a state-run program for parents who receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Parents, regardless of ethnicity, are eligible for help with transportation, child care and other services necessary to help them participate in education, training and work programs. This program is available to low-income parents only.

Special welfare rules

Myth: Somalis are entitled to greater welfare dollars than other low-income Maine families.

Fact: “That’s false,” Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau said.

“There is no dispute that when they first arrive into the country that the initial first year is accompanied by monies that come from the federal government that go to refugee resettlement agencies” to provide services for refugees, Nadeau said. “That is completely separate from what goes on within the social service government structure” in Maine, and has no connection to TANF, food stamps or local welfare eligibility.

Eligibility for TANF, food stamps, welfare and any other kind of general assistance for Somalis “is the same as everyone else in the city of Lewiston,” Nadeau said, and is based strictly on income status.

Blogger barometer

Myth: The majority of Lewiston residents don’t want the Somalis here, which is clear from the blogger comments posted on recent Sun Journal stories.

Fact: Of the 202 bloggers posting on the April 19 story, “Hate incident in city,” only 24 were from Lewiston; 9 from Auburn.

Of the 87 bloggers posting on the April 23 story, “Somalis, others reflect on high-tension week in community relations,” 26 were from Lewiston; 13 from Auburn.

Of the 230 bloggers posting on the April 25 story, “Ham report stirs ‘mess,'” 55 were from Lewiston; 44 from Auburn.

According to the Sun Journal’s database, most of the bloggers commenting on these stories are from out of state.

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