LEWISTON — Councilors will take their time deciding how to handle General Assistance welfare payments to asylum-seekers, thanks to a tearful testimony from a Somali refugee.

Fatuma Hussein, director of United Somali Women of Maine, said she was not an asylum-seeker when she came to Maine, but she understands their plight. She escaped a dangerous situation herself, coming to the U.S. for safety.

“I came to America because of a war,” she said. “I did not come to America or Lewiston because I wanted a handout.”

She’s now a successful owner of a Lewiston business and a taxpayer with seven employees.

“I provide employment opportunities for asylum-seekers and anyone who walks through our doorstep,” she said. “It is a small business, and I work with immigrant women and children and provide opportunities.”

She changed the tone of a City Council discussion about how to respond to a Superior Court ruling that the state does not have to reimburse Lewiston for payments made to asylum-seekers.


Those payments account for about $145,000 this year, City Administrator Ed Barrett said.

Mayor Robert Macdonald said he was in favor of ceasing payments to asylum-seekers.

“What they are doing is fence-jumping,” Macdonald said. “What about the people that have waited years to get here? These people jumped right in front of them.”

Maine law requires cities and towns to pay General Assistance to needy residents out of their general fund and property taxes. Single recipients can be eligible for up to $537 per month in aid from the city to help pay for basic necessities: housing, utilities, medicine and food. Multi-person households can be eligible for more.

The state then reimburses Maine cities and towns for a portion of what they paid out. Generally, the state repays half of what the municipality paid. The state reimbursement rate increases to 90 percent for a city once it pays out a certain amount.

DHHS wants to disallow the use of state funds for General Assistance distributed to undocumented immigrants and people who are here but have not been granted asylum status yet. Those people are here legally, but cannot work until they get that status. Many are fleeing violent, war-torn regions.


The Maine Municipal Association filed a lawsuit last summer challenging the legality of the new policy. Maine Superior Court upheld part of DHHS’ policy last week, saying communities such as Lewiston are not required to pay people without legal status. They can, but the state is not required to reimburse those payments.

Macdonald argued for a time limit for those in Lewiston currently getting assistance. It would not be fair to cut people off right away, he said, but the payments needed to be phased out.

“Our budget is strained,” Macdonald said. “We have to shut down City Hall earlier, we’ve had to lay off staff. We have to come to some kind of agreement.”

But Macdonald also downplayed asylum-seekers experiences.

“As far as violence goes, have you ever been to Chicago, New York, Detroit or Boston, where I come from?” Macdonald said. “There’s a lot of violence there.”

Hussein said that’s the comment that brought her to the podium.


“The war in my country was not the war that takes place in Chicago,” she said. “It’s a different war.”

People in Chicago, Detroit and Boston have a government and legal rights they can appeal to. People living in war zones don’t have rights, she said.

“I actually get insulted when people compare Somalia to Chicago,” she said. “They are two different experiences.”

The council backed away from quick action at that point, agreeing to have a workshop discussion about the matter on June 29.


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