LEWISTON — From her work almost 15 years ago with Lewiston’s earliest Somali immigrants to her recent work in Africa with a refugee resettlement organization, Lewiston-Auburn native Cheryl Hamilton told a Great Falls Forum audience about the staggering challenges that remain.

Hamilton began her talk with a quote, “I don’t want to survive; I want to live,” which she attributed to the movie “12 Years a Slave.” She said the quote reminded her of how she views the benefit of refugee resettlement: While humanitarian aid may keep people alive in refugee camps, refugee resettlement allows people to live again by allowing them to find housing, employment, education and more.

“Refugee protection is a really personal issue for me,” Hamilton said in her Friday presentation at Lewiston Public Library’s Callahan Hall.

Hamilton recalled how her thesis on the subject of refugees at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., took a sudden, life-changing twist more than a decade ago when her hometown experienced the unexpected arrival of the first wave of about 2,500 immigrants from Somalia.

She returned to work with the municipal governments of Lewiston and Portland, and later with the Center for Prevention of Hate, on resettlement issues, and she traveled throughout the U.S. on immigrant employment retraining missions.

In 2011, she accepted a position with RefugePoint, a non-governmental organization for which she now manages communication and development activities. Finding the most vulnerable refugees among the millions living in squalid camps or urban slums in Africa is the principal work of RefugePoint.

“If a refugee can find me or my staff, they are probably not the ones that need the help most,” Hamilton said.

She showed photos she took of people in refugee camps in Kenya, and she explained the situations encountered by many of them. She noted that the average length of time refugees live in refugee camps today is 17 years, often because the refugees can’t legally integrate into their host country, greatly limiting opportunities.

One of the photos showed a woman making mud bricks. Hamilton said the woman had made about 200 bricks in four days, and she would need 1,000 to build a simple hut. Until that was built, she would have no shelter, not even a tent.

About 500,000 people were in a refugee camp in Nairobi, and more are constantly arriving from East Africa, she said. In those camps, children are the most vulnerable because of sexual exploitation and kidnapping.

As a picture of a refugee camp with endless tents on an arid plain near Nairobi, Kenya, appeared on the screen, Hamilton spoke to a man in the audience who had come to Lewiston from Somalia.

“What is this?” she asked him.

“Ten years of my life,” he replied.

Hamilton also had pictures of a young boy and his grandmother. She said she asked the old woman what she had been able to bring with her when she fled violence in her country and came to Kenya. She pointed to a milk jug.

When Hamilton was first invited into that refugee family’s room in Kenya, the only word of English the woman knew was “welcome.” Not long ago, Hamilton said she was able to talk again with the woman, now in Seattle, Wash. The boys had regained their health and were in school. Their grandmother had learned English and she told Hamilton how her life had dramatically changed.

Hamilton described another scene she witnessed as many refugees were assembled at an airport awaiting transportation to their new homes. Rows of suitcases with destinations marked on them covered the floor. She showed a picture of one special suitcase that had caused her great excitement. Its sign read: “Lewiston, Maine.”

Addressing the Great Falls Forum audience, she said, “You should celebrate. There’s so much good work being done here.” She added, “finding things that connect people” is important for that to happen, and exposure to the culture of the refugees is essential.

Several years ago, Hamilton wrote and performed a one-woman show entitled “Checkered Floors” based on the Somali resettlement in Maine.

The Great Falls Forum is a monthly speaker series co-sponsored by the Sun Journal, Bates College and the Lewiston Public Library.

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