LEWISTON — During a visit Friday with key leaders in Maine’s largest growing immigrant community, state Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, learned far more than he expected.

Fredette, the minority leader in the Maine House of Representatives, spent nearly two hours with a group assembled by the United Somali Women of Maine in downtown Lewiston.

He also toured a handful of immigrant-owned businesses on Lisbon Street and talked to merchants briefly.

During the meeting, he heard over and over again the desire for gainful employment most Maine refugees from war-torn Africa have. It’s a concern they share with many unemployed and underemployed Mainers.

“We have a very good workforce; people are eager to work, people are ready to work, people want to go to work,” said Fatuma Hussein, the executive director of the Lewiston-based USWM.  

But Hussein said barriers exist and key among them is learning English. Another is that even well-educated immigrants — doctors, engineers, nurses — have a difficult time finding work if they have no documents proving the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Another issue for refugees, especially those seeking asylum, is they are not allowed to work until they get the go-ahead from the federal government, which can take months.

Those growing up with a foot in both their former country and culture and their new country and culture find the pressures hard to describe, 22-year-old Annisa Abdi said. While in American culture nobody would blink an eye that she is single and childless; in Somali culture she’s considered an “old maid,” Abdi said.

She is in the process of completing her bachelor’s degree in social science.

“Our generation has so many unique barriers,” Abdi told Fredette. 

She said the cultural pressure on Somali men to be the family breadwinner or provider often pushes them away from higher education. 

“It’s impossible for our parents to understand us and for us to be found,” Abdi said. “At 21, to know what you want to do and have a career, it’s nearly impossible to ask that of us — and because of that a lot of people get dissuaded from going to school. They get married, they have a child, they think life will get easier and it just gets harder.”

Fredette listened closely and asked Abdi where she found  “the internal fortitude” to carve a path of success for herself.  Abdi said her family support system with both parents made a difference, as did her own drive for a better life for her family.

Her path to Maine brought her from Thailand to Russia to Chicago to Lewiston. It wasn’t easy, she said. “I saw a lot of different people, in a lot of different places, in a lot of different experiences that I didn’t want to have,” Abdi said.

 The women also noted there was a lack of technical training and pathways to technical jobs for immigrants. While the CareerCenter in Lewiston, part of the Maine Department of Labor, is a great resource, it lacks a specialist that can focus on connecting immigrant workers with employers.

Fredette, the first generation of his family to go to college, compared some of the experiences Franco-Americans had to those that new African immigrants are experiencing now. The two cultures have similarities in their commitment to their religion and their tendency to have large families. 

However, in one key way their stories are different,  Joan Churchill, director of development for Community Concepts, said.  

When emigrating French-Canadians came to Lewiston, they came to a city desperate for workers and while lack of competency in English was a barrier, it wasn’t a disqualifying factor. 

Churchill also noted, and Fredette agreed, that without Maine’s growing immigrant community the state’s population would be on a decline. 

Fredette told the women he would bring what he heard back to the Legislature and suggested he would have them tell their stories and present their concerns to a special legislative select committee on workforce and the state’s economic future.

The committee was formed this year to address many of the issues surrounding Maine’s so-called ‘skills’ gap — the concept that available jobs are going unfilled because the state lacks the skilled workers to take those jobs.

Fredette said he was impressed with the amount and level of entrepreneurship he saw in the downtown from the immigrant community in Lewiston.

“The growing Somali community in Lewiston is an asset to our state because it offsets that demographic winter,” he said. “We must find a way to help them achieve gainful employment and transition to American culture. We must ensure that our education system is all that it can be and that Maine has a healthy business climate that allows recent immigrants to be successful entrepreneurs.”

He also praised the efforts of Hussein, Abdi and several of the other female leaders who were making a difference in their community and providing positive role models for youth.

“I’m very impressed with the leadership,” Fredette said. “You all should be commended for what you are doing.”

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