LEWISTON — With the city’s new Mainer community hard hit by COVID-19, a special task force comprised of a number of refugee groups and support organizations has been working within the tight community to reduce spread of the virus and help families.

Abdulkerim Said, executive director of the New Mainers Public Health Initiative, is the head of a task force focused on helping Lewiston’s new Mainers during the coronavirus pandemic. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Led by the New Mainer Public Health Initiative based in Lewiston, the task force has worked since mid-March when the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Auburn, doing everything from educating, to delivering food, to helping pay bills, to working as liaisons with health care providers.

The task force is made up of members of mosques, public health groups, youth groups and education-based organizations. Each of the groups normally supports the refugee population in its own way, however the COVID-19 pandemic has brought them together for a common concern.

Abdirkadir Negeye, an assistant executive director of Maine Immigrant & Refugee Services based in Lewiston and a key member of the task force, said many members of the community are essential workers in the service, health, and grocery sectors locally, putting them at high risk of exposure. Language barriers have made it difficult for many to receive the latest information from the Center of Disease Control, including testing and quarantine guidelines.

In some cases, outbreaks at health care facilities have caused workers to be sent home to quarantine. Yet, quarantining is difficult for many, according to Negeye and other members of the task force. New Mainers often have large families living in crowded spaces, sharing stairwell railings and front doors with numerous other families in the same building. Without the proper space to quarantine effectively, the virus is able to spread quickly.

Adding to these problems are the social stigma and economic fears associated with getting tested, said Abdulkerim Said, executive director of New Mainer Public Health Initiative and the primary coordinator of the emergency task force.


According to Negeye, even if the outcome of a test is negative, those who get tested cannot go to work until their results arrive days later. In a family that relies on the income of a single family member, the loss of income for days can be difficult to weather; two weeks can be devastating.

Since its inception, the task force has supported the community on numerous fronts, calling families directly to assess their needs and relay CDC guidelines in their native languages, leaders said.

In the beginning, the task force applied for unemployment benefits on behalf of community members unable to do it themselves. They paid utility bills for some families in extreme need and made sure families had enough to eat.

The task force has also helped link the community with hospitals and testing centers, providing some families with basic cellphones and minutes allowing contact with medical staff.

“It’s hard (for new Mainers) to connect to housing, unemployment, for hospitals,” Negeye said. “They don’t know how to navigate (these systems).”

The observance of Ramadan posed further challenges for the task force.


Beginning on April 12 this year, members of the new Mainer community who would normally congregate in mosques to break their fast at the end of the day were unable to do so due to state social distancing guidelines, Said said.

Instead, the task force identified families in the community with the greatest needs to purchase, prepare and deliver food to, for the monthlong observance of Ramadan.

New Mainer Public Health Initiative Program Director Hibo Omer said the task force has been crucial to forging new links between organizations serving the new Mainers in the Lewiston community.

“We live in the same town, but everyone does different things,” Omer said. “Now that we know each other, we now have the trust (to work together).”

Yet, Omer and other advocates said that despite their efforts, COVID-19 has hit the community hard.

“It seems like there are very few (people in the community who haven’t been exposed),” she said.


Exact numbers are not available. However, Coleen Elias, interim CEO of the B-Street Health Clinic on Birch Street, said out of 113 people they’ve tested since May 15, 81% have been from the Black community. Thirty-one percent of tests have come back positive; 97% percent were Black residents. The clinic is the closest testing facility to the residential downtown community.

Elias noted that the clinic was expecting to address a greater volume of requests. She said she believes there is mistrust of the CDC and health officials, as well as miscommunication about testing, within the new Mainer community that is preventing community members from getting tested.

She said the clinic is willing to do more testing but lacks the demand.

New Mainer advocates said they feel the CDC and city of Lewiston have been slow to provide support to the new Mainer community, despite weekly meetings with the task force.

A government contract with a local hotel allowing community members to quarantine onsite at no cost went into effect Monday. However, advocates said that was weeks after similar plans were implemented in Portland. Augusta and Bangor also offered the service before Lewiston, despite smaller refugee populations.

Lewiston City Manager Ed Barrett said city officials were similarly frustrated with the delayed response from state agencies.


“We have been aggressively pushing them to try and get this up and going,” Barrett said. “We recognize that there is a need here.”

He said it took the state a long time to identify a hotel in the area willing to provide this service and then additional time to work out the agreement details.

While advocates said they are thankful the hotel is now an option for area new Mainers, they said it would have had a greater impact on the community had it been available weeks ago.

Additionally, Said said that while members of the task force are willing to work as contact tracers within the new Mainer community, they have yet to receive any information from the CDC since applying five weeks ago.

COVID-19 continues to be a problem within the refugee community despite decreasing case numbers. Advocates and health professionals insist that the only way to get a handle on the community spread of the virus is to increase testing.

“I know people have been saying the case number is decreasing, but I don’t think that is an accurate number,” Negeye said. “We have to go door to door testing. We have to do more mobile testing. If people are not being tested, the virus is still going to be in the community.”


Moving forward, the task force will continue to educate the new Mainer community and act as a link for members struggling to access resources.

Black residents in Maine have contracted COVID-19 at a rate more than 20 times higher than white residents. Despite making up only 1.4% of the population, 23% of positive tests in Maine have come from the Black community.

In a virtual news conference on Thursday, leaders of Maine’s refugee and minority communities criticized Gov. Janet Mills and state government for delayed and inadequate support, urging them to pay more attention to the needs of their communities.

“We came to you over and over and over, hundreds of meetings and thousands of hours of time, collectively asking and pleading for help,” said Fatuma Hussein, executive director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, located in Lewiston, during the news conference. “But our needs and voices remain unheard.”

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