The teenage Somali male, a junior at Edward Little High School, shook the UMaine lanyard hanging around his neck. “I brought the keys to the free car I got last year,” he said, eliciting guffaws that echoed through the cavernous Franco-American Heritage Center basement.

Mukhtar Sharif had been asked to show an important personal item; as a newly-licensed driver, the car keys were an easy mark. After weeks of meetings, and hours of talking, eating, and laughing, the people around him were easy marks as well – for his comedy.

Sharif was speaking during one recent “community dialogue” organized by the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence, several of which have occurred across Lewiston-Auburn in past weeks. The dialogues brought together various segments of the community for discussions on cultural relations, and stereotypes still prevalent about Somalis.

Like free cars, or groceries. Vast cash payments for resettlement. Unlimited welfare. Or, more ridiculous, myths – such as the alleged Somali driving around L-A in a free Lexus with the license plate UPYD4IT, which paints Somalis not only as freeloaders, but disrespectful ones, to boot.

Lately, the ham incident in Lewiston Middle School, and the misguided national maelstrom it spurred, exhumed these stereotypes. It showed, despite progress over the past half-decade, this community is still swimming against an undercurrent of intolerance.

I joined the dialogue because, as a newcomer to L-A, what I knew about Somalis was shaped by accounts of the “major” events: the Raymond letter; the rallies; the pig’s head. I laughed at Sharif’s joke, because I think the idea of free cars for anybody, really, is farcical.

There are many around L-A, though, still basing opinions on Somalis on these distorted fragments of the truth, rather than personal experience. Most of it is not malicious, and stems from simple disconnect.

Prejudices, unfortunately, thrive in this silence.

Schools have helped overcome this divide, in large part, because inside the educational melting pot, students have interacted, and through this interaction, has come understanding. Fights don’t erupt in the hallways anymore, says Steve Galway, an assistant principal at Edward Little High School.

“We’ve gone from a thunderstorm of controversy three years ago, into a very calm, accepting, understanding, and much more friendly school,” says Galway, adding the educational community has become more aware, and educated, about diversity, in all its forms.

The same hasn’t occurred inside the community-at-large. Stephen Wessler, director of the CPHV, organized the dialogues because, he says, L-A is one “hate incident” away from an ethnic schism which will take years to recover.

“What we’re looking to do is significantly increase the level of understanding of people who aren’t Somali, about Somalians and Islam, to reduce the risk of something awful happening,” he says. “When there’s background noise of stereotypes, there’s a real risk of an incident happening that could define a community for years to come.”

Wessler is right to be wary. The situation at Lewiston Middle School was a match flame, blown into inferno by the hot air of national commentators and one juvenile satirist. Imagine something more serious had happened – a desecration of the mosque, perhaps. An racial assault, or murder.

This is why, for several weeks inside a building dedicated to the influence of immigration in L-A, a small, diverse, group – young, old, men, women, Franco, Somali, Italian and Irish-American, Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant – met to prove overcoming biases starts with open mouths, and open minds.

“Acceptance, not assimilation,” is how John Glaus, the cultural affairs director for the Franco Center, used to punctuate the series of dialogues. It’s a two-way phrase, as there remain barriers to acceptance within L-A’s immigrants and natives, a natural friction that comes from their blending.

This was spotlighted three weeks into the dialogue, when Mayor Laurent Gilbert – a proud Franco, who wears a “Support Immigration” bracelet on his wrist – broached the topic of domestic violence within the Somali community, which he describes as often mediated by elders, instead of law enforcement.

His statement sparked the lone moment of tension in otherwise insightful discussions. Gilbert says he raised the point to illustrate how everyone must follow, and adhere, to the laws of the community. “That might be fine in their country,” he says “But they live here, and we all have parameters to live by.”

As do we all. Yet prejudices voiced during the dialogues seemed to share a common feature: the belief that the other group disapproves, or rejects, these community parameters.

In other words, have we come to expect disrespect?

Paul St. Jean, who participated at the Franco Center discussions, expressed this by asking why adult Somali males didn’t attend discussions. He felt their perceived indifference made the dialogues pointless.

He told Wessler in an e-mail, “Yours is a noble cause, but until you overcome the indifference of the major players, the adult Somali males, your struggle will be a long one,” a statement that targeted a specific group, but carries reasoning that should apply to all.

As proven in the schools, overcoming stereotypes takes will, a desire to have biases broken. Inside Edward Little, for example, the need to reduce tension led to action. The tension inside L-A needs similar momentum, which could start with a simple hello, or as Gilbert says, “Smile, you’ll be amazed at the response.”

Or if all else fails, try laughing at a set of car keys. That works, too.


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