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By Tom Weber,
Last updated: Thursday, November 28, 2002

Seeking Lewiston's diversity

Some Lewiston officials, if only in jest, say they're praying that an ice storm will sweep into their city on Jan. 11.

Not the epic kind of storm that paralyzed the state a few years back, of course. Just a single day of nasty weather that might put a chill on the inflammatory and hateful rhetoric that the World Church of the Creator intends to spread when it comes to demonstrate against the city's Somali population on that day.

At this point, no one is certain what will happen when the white supremacist leader Matthew Hale shows up at the Lewiston Armory with his followers to speak on "The Invasion of Maine by Somalis and How We Can End It." It might turn out to be an uneventful exercise in hatemongering, as when Hale spoke without incident at the Salt Lake City Public Library in September. Then again, the demonstration could become ugly, as it did in Wakefield, Mass., last fall when more than 200 police showed up in riot gear to contain a clash between 600 church supporters and protesters.

While officials say they expect to be fully prepared for whatever happens, the community is planning to greet the Illinois-based group and its supporters with a force even more effective than helmeted police, tear gas and crowd-control fencing. Earlier this week, religious and community leaders began planning a large celebration of diversity to counteract the World Church gathering. It will be a chorus of mixed voices, representing several local churches, the Bahai community, the Franco-American Heritage Center and the Maine Rural Workers Coalition, among others, that intends to spread the word loud, clear and peacefully that the Somali people are indeed welcome as friends and neighbors in their city.

Once Hale and his troublemakers have moved on, the city can get back to the critical business of assimilating 1,100 immigrants who, it is hoped, will breathe new life into a city that has struggled to redefine itself since the demise of its textile mills and shoe factories.

"There is a real current of support at the community level for the Somali families," said Assistant City Administrator Phil Nadeau. "The majority in Lewiston believes that the city will one day benefit economically and culturally from the new immigrant population. It will take time, but we're committed as a city to do whatever it takes."

Nadeau admits that the last 20 months or so have been a challenge for the city, an often bewildering and occasionally contentious learning process for everyone. The fact that the state was so slow in helping the city after the Somalis began moving north from Portland in February 2001, Nadeau says, made the settlement process more frustrating and difficult than it should have been.

"We made it clear at the beginning of 2001," he said, "that Lewiston wanted more state involvement to assist communities in making immigrant populations successful here, to create opportunities. In many ways, cultural diversity just stopped at Portland. But without state resettlement programs in place, Portland was doing all the work by itself and shouldering the responsibility for being Maine's most diverse city. As a consequence, when the affordable housing market in Portland got tight and that diversity started moving outside its borders, other communities like ours could not have been prepared. We've had to figure it all out on our own as we went along."

Despite Mayor Larry Raymond's now-infamous letter urging Somalis to "show some

discipline" in relocating to Lewiston, Nadeau said the city administration has done a "heroic job" in accommodating its newest residents and ensuring an open-door policy to future immigrants.

The city has increased its general assistance welfare budget from about $400,000 last year to $528,000 this fiscal year. More than 200 Somali students have entered the city's schools since the spring of 2001, and many are enrolled in the English as a second language program. Catholic Charities of Maine has opened an office in the city to assist families, Nadeau said, and Lewiston is in the process of establishing, with state funds, its own immigrant settlement coordinator.

Nadeau believes the city's efforts will not only reap rewards for Lewiston one day, but may serve as the catalyst for a statewide discussion of Maine's economic future and of the desperate need for an infusion of new faces - no matter the color or origin - that prosperity will require.

With Maine's rapidly aging population, with so many of its children leaving for opportunities elsewhere and its birthrate at an historic low, Somalis and other immigrant groups can help replenish the lifeblood and vitality that is draining from this state at an alarming speed.

"This has been an important exercise not only locally, but for the entire state," Nadeau said. "We in Lewiston are now entering the next step, which is what the community can do as a whole to embrace the idea of true cultural diversity and understand what it means. A community that is 97 percent [white] is now having its first experience in diversity with a population that is non-European, nonwhite, non-Christian. The education process will take time, and will have to extend beyond City Hall and move out into the neighborhoods, the schools and the homes. Ultimately, we'll all benefit."

©Copyright 2002, Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME, USA)

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