Amina Abdi of A&A Language Services, center, interprets vaccination information to Fatima Abdi of Lewiston on Thursday at a clinic at the Masjidu Salaam mosque in Lewiston. Public nurses from the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, Theresa Kavanaugh, left, and Caitlin Wright, far right, listen. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Abdikadir Abayle arrived in New York from a Kenyan refugee camp with his wife and 1-year-old daughter, was quickly shown a place to live, given food in the fridge and told by resettlement agency staff they’d be back in a week.

There were no diapers for the baby, no phone and no number to reach anyone if he could have figured out how.

On the streets below, no one spoke Somali.

“It is something that I do not wish on anybody,” said Abayle, 42. “It is nothing I even wish to happen to my enemies.”

Imam Abdikadir Abayle, the spiritual leader of the Masjidu Salaam mosque in Lewiston, speaks Thursday to Amina Abdi of A&A Language Services, left, and Julie Hardacker, the on-site supervisor for the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention about vaccine requirements and protocol inside the mosque on Bartlett Street in Lewiston. Abayle holds his 1-year-old daughter, Weliya Ibrahim. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Anab Farah was 14, born and raised in a refugee camp, new to Auburn and assigned a male interpreter for doctor’s appointments. She still remembers the burning teenage embarrassment. No one thought to offer her a woman.

Abdikhadar Shire asked a new friend in student housing how to heat water for tea. In the refugee camp, they cooked on an open fire. Turn the knob on the stove, the friend advised. Shire turned it for a week, nothing happened. The friend hadn’t said to push and turn; that felt too obvious.

“They have the best intention in their heart but because they have not lived in the same situation, they think that everybody is going to know how to use the cooker or how to flush the washroom,” Shire said.

After the Biden administration this month vastly increased the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the U.S., Catholic Charities Maine signaled it believes it can place 400 people starting this fall, arrivals that have been historically split 40/60 between greater Lewiston and Portland. It could be less. And the year after, it could be more. The situation is fluid, and heart-tugging — many will likely be family reunifications, people who have waited years for the chance to come here.

A coalition of five immigrant-led groups in Lewiston, including Abayle, Farah and Shire, have started planning how to make those arrivals warmer, more seamless and less traumatizing.

Less what they lived.

“I will tell them welcome home,” said Amina Abdi, 27. “They’re in good hands.”

‘HOW’S LIFE IN LEWISTON?’

Hannah DeAngelis, program director for Catholic Charities Maine Refugee Immigration Services, said last week that her group is the only resettlement agency in the state. The Maine office is waiting to hear back later this summer on a proposal to its national affiliate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to take in 400 refugees between October 2021 and September 2022.

“The only reason it’s not higher is because we’ve been really decimated by the prior administration and we need to rebuild capacity on our team,” DeAngelis said.

Maine peaked at 640 refugee resettlements in 2014, under the Obama administration. Last year it was 46. She’s hoping to end this fiscal year, in September, at 50.

About 70% of Maine arrivals have typically been family reunifications, DeAngelis said.

“Now that we have a number of mostly Somali and Iraqi families, that’s where a lot of our family reunifications come from,” she said, noting that there’s also been a growing Congolese population here.

There are an estimated 80 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“About 1% of those folks get resettled in a third country like the United States,” DeAngelis said. “It’s an extremely small number and the screening and waiting process can take decades for folks, easily. The average in the world right now, I think, is 25 years in a refugee camp.”

Agencies like hers typically receive a two-week notice that someone’s coming.

The resettlement agency meets them at the airport, gives each family member $975, one time, and provides 90 days of intensive case management that includes help finding an apartment, plugging into social services and enrolling in schools, DeAngelis said.

“That money is supposed to cover those additional items like a deposit on an apartment,” she said.

During a tight market, housing could be a challenge, she said. They’ve had more success in Lewiston for larger families.

“We register folks for public housing immediately, but in greater Portland, that waiting list is at least a year. In Lewiston, it’s much more likely someone will get it quickly, so it really depends upon where folks live,” she said.

Refugees are immediately eligible to work and also immediately eligible for services like city general assistance.

Shire, 31, founder and executive director of AK Health and Social Services, said part of the local coalition’s planning is not just about the 160 or so refugees who could be settled in Lewiston directly, but those who are settled elsewhere around the U.S., particularly in large cities, who choose to move to Lewiston in short order.

“Because of Facebook, everybody knows what everybody is doing,” Shire said. “So when someone is traveling from a refugee camp to the United States, they are already connected with their friends. ‘Where do you live right now?’ ‘I live in Lewiston, Maine. Where are they taking you?’ ‘They’re taking me to New York. How’s life in Lewiston?’ ‘It’s great. There’s a lot of Somali community, there’s a lot of cultural things going on around here,’ and they will start to move in.”

‘IT’S ON OUR RADAR’

Rilwan Osman, executive director of Maine Immigrant & Refugee Services on Bartlett Street, believes a lot of immigrants in Maine are secondary arrivals, like himself. He moved from Atlanta to Lewiston in 2006, drawn by the quiet and community, a choice many families started making about 20 years ago.

The city is home to an estimated 6,000 immigrants, 16% of Lewiston’s population.

Over the past several years, he estimates 55 immigrant families have moved here annually, almost all secondary migrants.

He’s excited at the prospect of more refugees.

“I have been in a refugee camp, I have been in a war-torn country,” Osman said. “These people who are coming in have no choice. We had no other place to come. So one, it’s good for the people coming in because it is an opportunity for them to help themselves and also their family members. This is a new beginning for them, a new path for them. In the meantime, when they come here, it is good because it helps our economy grow, they start working, open a business.”

MEIRS provides a host of services: employment assessments, language and assistance classes, counselors and after-school programs.

“We want these folks to be on their feet so they can go to work as soon as they come in so they can be a contributing member of the community and support themselves,” Osman said.

He wishes someone had explained the importance of financial management and banking when he arrived. It’s one of the first things he tells clients now.

“‘Make sure you manage your finances correctly, make sure you build your credit, that’s going to help you five years, 10 years from now when you buy a house and when you try to buy a car,'” Osman said.

In the coming months, Dale Doughty, Lewiston’s deputy city administrator, said the city isn’t sure what to expect.

“It’s on our radar,” he said, but right now, with no details — how many people, from where, arriving when — to work with. “We really haven’t had a chance to sit down with people and really understand what they see is on the horizon for us.

“(General assistance), housing, food security — there’s a lot of things we’d like to understand from them what their plans are,” he said. “We’re hoping that some of them come up with some plans.”

When it comes to potentially setting aside more city funds, “I think it’s wait and understand,” Doughty said. “Right now it’s all very, very new. Is it 100 people or 100 families, or more or less, or is it over a year or might there be a flood all at one time? We may need to look at things differently depending upon what that is.”

‘100% LIKELY WE WILL SUCCEED’

Coordinating a COVID-19 vaccination clinic Thursday at the mosque on Bartlett Street in Lewiston are, from left, Amina Abdi of A&A Language Services, Anab Farah of Fresh Start Maine, Nadifa Mohamed of A&K Talent Pool, Abdikhadar Shire of AK Health and Social Services, and Abdikadir Abayle, the imam of the Masjidu Salaam mosque. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

For the small coalition, it’s waiting and planning.

The group — Shire, head of AK Health and Social Services; Farah, head of Fresh Start Maine, a new mental health and case management agency; Nadifa Mohamed, head of A&K Talent Pool, an employment agency; Abdi, head of A&A Language Services, an interpreting company; and Abayle, who has led the Bartlett Street mosque as imam since 2008 — met for the first time two weeks ago.

“Some people, back home, they were business owners, people were making a good living,” said Mohamed, 28. Starting a new life here, “that would be a depression for them, having no money in their pocket. My hope is I can make the connections they need, I can help them find a job.”

Born and raised in a Kenyan refugee camp, she and her family — mom, dad and seven children — moved to the U.S. in 2009, first to Portland, then to Auburn.

In Kenya, she’d attended public and private school and studied English, and without that, “we would have been lost,” Mohamed said. “We would have missed our plane to come here.”

Abdi, who this month graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in social and behavioral sciences, said her company is able to offer services for eight languages.

She moved to Maine 11 years ago with five sisters, her brother and mom.

“My job will be to lend a hand with the language barrier,” she said. “This is coming from experience. When I got here, these are the services I needed, I wish, that we now have. … I am the oldest in my family and felt a lot of pressure.”

It was tough for her mother to find work. High school was a challenge.

“The culture shock, including from food to language, to the way you dress, to the way you talk,” Abdi said. “We are new Mainers, but we need to get to a place where we are just Mainers. That takes a lot of work.”

In giving refugees a hand, “they will adapt way faster,” she said. “It feels so good to ease people’s culture shock and all that adjustment.”

Farah, 22, founded her agency last year. She hopes to offer refugees help with therapy or advocacy.

Dek Hassan, left, and Nadifa Mohamed go over registration information Thursday at the signup table outside of the Masjidu Salaam mosque where a vaccination clinic was taking place. Abdikhadar Shire of AK Health and Social Services, background at left, and Anab Farah of Fresh Start Maine look on. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The immigrant community has a lot of unmet mental health needs that are oftentimes unacknowledged, she said.

“In my community, they don’t believe in therapy or going to see a counselor and such things, but I think sometimes it’s much needed,” Farah said. “A lot of them go through a lot to where life would be so much different if they just had that off their chest and talked to someone.”

It wasn’t until a certified nursing assistant class in high school, “that was eye-opening for me, just learning about it, that there’s something called ‘mental health,'” she said.

When she came to Auburn in 2014, Farah said she was luckier than most: Her father was already here with two sisters and three brothers.

They could help acclimate her, “but I still did run into situations,” she said. “I was always a person with anxiety, so that made it a bit worse. Oh my God, at first I wasn’t understanding much of the language, I wasn’t understanding much of how the system worked. Even though I was younger, I had a lot of questions that I kept to myself. I couldn’t ask.”

She was uncomfortable with the male interpreter at doctor’s appointments, so that’s a personal goal, spending time with new refugees and asking young women if they would prefer a female.

And, along with that, “just help immigrants in general, make them feel more comfortable and more like home. That’s one thing that lacks with immigrants. Even when they live here for over 10 years, they don’t feel home.”

Shire sees his agency helping with workforce development and public health awareness and outreach, particularly educating around protecting themselves during the pandemic. It helps that several people within the coalition have already worked together on vaccine clinics, he said.

“If we do this as a partnership, we’ll be making a strong statement,” he said.

Abayle, the local imam, said, with Shire interpreting for him, that when he thinks about his own jarring arrival experience in New York in 2005, he wonders what would have happened to a refugee family with seven or eight children.

“After one week, they sent somebody that speaks the language,” he said. “He told me I was in line to get services, but there were a lot of other refugees that were ahead of me. I had to wait three more days to get what I needed.”

The first thing Abayle envisions himself being able to do as part of the coalition is connect refugees with the larger community. He anticipates the majority of the people coming will be from the Islamic faith, but said he’s happy to work with people from other faiths.

“We want to make them feel at home and help them adapt well,” he said. “I’m very optimistic about this because all of us that came together have experiences both here and back home. It’s 100% likely that we will succeed, that nobody is going to go through a culture shock when they come here.”

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