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December 12, 2016
Focus: Lewiston/Auburn

Immigrant mix changing in Lewiston

Photo / Lori Valigra
Photo / Lori Valigra
Shukri Abasheikh, originally from Somalia and owner of Mogadishu Store on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, stands in front of a case stocked with foods from Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Who are the new Mainers?

Immigrant: An overall name for refugees, migrants and asylees.

Refugee: A person forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.

Primary refugee: A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.

Secondary migrant: A person who entered the United States as a refugee, was settled in one state and moves to another state.

Asylum-seeker: A person who has left their home country as a political refugee and seeks asylum in another country. Only asylum seekers who are granted status as a refugee can work in the country.

Sources: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Catholic Charities Maine

Shukri Abasheikh, who owns the bustling 1,500-square-foot Mogadishu Store on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, was among the first wave of Somalis who moved to the central Maine city in July 2002. She's made it a priority to have items she had at home in her general store, including Santa Lucia pasta.

"The taste reminds me of my childhood," she says.

Now, she's doing the same to welcome the third wave of asylum-seekers from central and eastern African nations like Rwanda, Burundi, Djibouti and Democratic Republic of the Congo. To make them feel more at home, she's stocked a full case of foods from their native countries near the front of her store.

Lewiston has seen a boom in all types of immigrants, a catch-all word that includes refugees, secondary migrants and asylum-seekers. The first wave in 2001-02 saw four ethnic Somali families come and subsequently draw in more friends, and the second wave in 2008-09 brought a big wave of the ethnic minority Somali Bantu, says Phil Nadeau, deputy city administrator in Lewiston. Many were secondary migrants, those coming from other U.S. cities, including Atlanta.

"In 2015 we noticed a bigger wave of asylum-seekers primarily from western and central African countries like Congo, Angola and Burundi," he says. "It's a shift for us in terms of the clients we're serving and their needs."

He says in 2013, 56% of incoming families applying for general assistance were from Angola, Djibouti and Congo, whereas 18% were from Somalia. The numbers began to shift over time, he says, with 2015 showing 71% from the three more recent African nations and 13% from Somalia. From May this year through August, 79% were from the three countries and only 8% were from Somalia.

Those numbers of asylum-seekers and secondary migrants show that the ethnic mix in Lewiston's largely Somali community is changing, as is the mix within Lewiston as a whole.

Lewiston had a population of 36,592 in 2010, the most recent U.S. Census figure, and since February 2001 more than 5,000 Africans of all ethnicities have come to the city on the Androscoggin River. Academics call this "rapid ethnic diversification."

Sue Charron, director of social services in Lewiston, says the growth of all immigrants, but particularly asylum-seekers, has been remarkable since fiscal year 2010 ended June 2010. At that time, 12% of all clients (700 to 800 households) coming through the city's general assistance office were immigrants, 4% of them asylum-seekers. In fiscal 2016 that number rose to 51% of total immigrants, of which 46% were asylum seekers. Most are from Djibouti, a coastal African nation through which many Somalis come to the United States.

"They first file for general assistance, then apply for asylum right away to get their I-589 asylum form (that withholds them from deportation), then get an alien number," she says. "After that they can get help from Health and Human Services, food stamps and MaineCare."

It can take 150 days or longer to get employment authorization, and they can't work during that time. "But soon after they get the authorization they are working and being productive," Charron says. She says it's too early to have figures on their economic impact to the state.

She says that attitudes of local Lewiston residents have changed since the first influx of Somalis in 2001.

Still, Charron says there's a lack of knowledge about the New Mainer population. "The general public thinks everyone here is from Somalia," she says. "Three people working in my office now are from different countries and speak different languages. That will happen more and more."

She adds, "The growth at all schools in Lewiston has been from new Mainers."

New ethnicities, new skills

Along with the changing mix in ethnicity is a new mix of skills and religions, as most people from Somalia are Muslims, while most from the other African countries are Christian.

"Large numbers of the [new] Africans lately have quite a bit of education," Nadeau says, adding that he's meeting people with MD degrees and expertise in information technology. "With the Somalis there are high levels of low literacy in their native language, so it's hard to learn a second language."

Charron also says she's seeing lots of pharmacists and doctors coming in from Rwanda, one of whom was able to get his credentials transferred because an agency from Portland helped him get his transcript. With wars in their native lands, many asylum-seekers are unable to prove they have degrees because their universities have been bombed or records destroyed.

"Because many Africans coming in are Christians, they had a better education in their home countries," says Hassan Alew, a registered nurse in Portland who hails from Kenya.

Many Somalis have become store owners, mechanics, language translators and order-pickers at stores like L.L.Bean. Lewiston Social Services Department numbers from 2010 show the Walmart superstore had 23 full-time and 10 part-time Somali employees who were mostly stackers. Dingley Press had 20 full time, hotels and motels had 20, L.L.Bean had 20 full time and 300 seasonal, and most of the others worked as caseworkers, bus drivers, with two as registered nurses and five as certified nursing assistants, also known as CNAs.

"L.L.Bean did a good job to hire people, but other companies aren't reaching out enough," says Alew. He works as a registered nurse at Barron Center nursing home in Portland, as a part-time RN at St. Mary's d'Youville Pavilion nursing home in Lewiston and as a teacher of medication administration for CNAs at Lewiston Adult Education.

"There's lots of opportunity for people to work in health care," Alew says. "But it's hard to get jobs because a lot of people get them by word of mouth. There's a lack of ways to get information to find a job and some people don't know how to ask."

Lewiston got some funding for CNA students, and more New Mainers are taking part in learning this skill, says Bill Grant, director of Lewiston Adult Education.

Help for businesses

Once New Mainers get their work permits, some start their own businesses, and have help from organizations including CEI, which has a free business development program called StartSmart to help immigrants start or grow a business.

John Scribner, director of StartSmart for CEI, says the program has 250 clients in Lewiston and has contacts with 70 businesses to help them start and strengthen their skills.

"They usually first come to us to get legal information and then we give them more intensive services as they start up," he says, adding that if needed, CEI provides an interpreter. "We spend time with a client to help them write a business plan or work on the cash side, such as getting microloans. We offer a fee-for-service loan, which is a technical assistance fee in lieu of an interest payment. We provide expertise and money." Sharia (Islamic law) does not allow interest or fees for loans.

Scribner says that within Lewiston's Somali community, most businesses are retail stores, but many people also work as interpreters, in construction, as auto mechanics, sell used cars or run child care businesses.

"The halal markets [for foods allowed under Islamic dietary laws] are stable, with some here 10 years or more," he says. "Rents are cheaper so it's easier to start a market here than in Portland."

Adds Scribner, "I believe these businesses are helping with the economy. Business is the first way the community experiences a culture, as well as through sports and food. Businesses and chambers are realizing their core members need employees. And we have skilled immigrants."

Abasheikh at the Mogadishu store started with a very small market, only 240 square feet, he says, and now has one of the largest markets in Lewiston. She'll tell customers how to cook goat or camel meat, and is known for her Sambusa, stuffed triangular pastries with meat and spices.

Her older daughter is a doctor, and four of her seven children graduated from Lewiston High School. Another daughter who is an accountant is starting a business across the street, and her son is studying architecture and plans to return to Lewiston.

Adds Scribner: "In the next 5 to 10 years, the concentration [of immigrants] in Portland and Lewiston will encompass more and more of the whole state, like the Iraqis in Augusta."

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