Letter From Maine: New in Town


On a misty autumn morning in south-central Maine, a small group of Somali women--Seynab Ali, Hawa Ibrahim, Habiba Nor--are harvesting organic vegetables in fields near the town of Lewiston. There are orders from a couple of high-end restaurants in Portland: Ten pounds of tomatoes, four pounds of kale, five pounds of chilies; green beans, a watermelon, six butternut squash, thirty-five pounds of potatoes. The women wade into the fields, yellow cornstalks rising above their heads. Each has her own plot. Seynab Ali loses a shoe in the mud, and peals of laughter echo to a line of trees in the distance.

Visit the New Yorker magazine website to view a slideshow of photographs taken by Samantha AppletonVisit the New Yorker magazine website to view a slideshow of photographs taken by Samantha Appleton to accompany this article.

Ali emerges, her arms full of produce. She is a short woman with a commanding gaze. She holds up a dark leafy vegetable. Collard greens, she says, through an interpreter. There's a lot of this in Georgia, and African-Americans like it; she learned that in Atlanta, where she spent seven months before moving to Maine, in 2005, with her husband and five children. Another son, who is twenty-two, is in a refugee camp in Kenya. Ali was a subsistence farmer in Somalia before fleeing the civil war that has consumed the country for the past two decades. Like the other women in the fields, she speaks very little English, and is illiterate in her own language.

The women come in from their plots, their head scarves gilded by the mist. They carry sacks of carrots and corn for their families, along with the produce ordered by the restaurants. The women also sell vegetables, two afternoons a week, at local farmers' markets. They got their start--leased land, tools, seeds, even a van they take to the fields--from some of the foundations and charities that have taken an interest in the Somali refugees, who started arriving in Lewiston almost six years ago. But their income from farming is minuscule. Ali's husband sometimes works as a janitor in a hotel near the coast; that helps to pay the rent. Their children are in school.

A lanky young American, William Burke, waits at the edge of the field with a scale and a notebook, ready to record the women's contributions. Burke is an AmeriCorps volunteer, working for the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project. As a college student, he cooked with one of the Portland chefs whom he has persuaded to order from the Somali farmers.

I ask Burke if the menus will note that the butternut squash was grown by local Somali refugees.

"We haven't done any real branding yet," he says, his tone finely balanced between earnestness and irony. "That will become more of the project later."

Aden says prayers in his local mosque. Aden says prayers in his local mosque. Eschewing Western psychiatrists, distraught Somalis prefer to take their troubles to the imam at their mosque, and they continue to do so in Maine.

"Who authorized this?" Lewiston officials say that this is the question they heard most often when the Somalis began showing up in town. The answer was: Nobody did. The Somalis had simply decided to come. Most had been resettled by government agencies in large American cities like Atlanta and Columbus, and were not happy with the crime, drugs, and schools they found there. The first few families had landed in Lewiston in February, 2001, after housing could not be obtained for them in Portland, Maine's largest city. Word quickly went out that Lewiston had good schools, a low crime rate, and cheap housing. By Greyhound bus and minivan, Somali families started arriving, first by the dozens, then by the hundreds.

Lewiston, an old mill town on the Androscoggin River, is known to out-of-staters--if it is known at all--for having hosted, in 1965, in a converted high-school hockey rink, a heavyweight title fight between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali. (The bout had the lowest attendance of any title fight ever.) With a population of thirty-six thousand, the town was until recently ninety-six per cent white and predominantly Catholic--French-Canadian and Irish--and was slowly losing its young people as local mills and factories closed. Unlike towns on the Maine coast, it didn't even see tourists. Then, practically overnight, the streets seemed to be full of black African Muslims. Today, there are about three thousand Somalis in Lewiston, and dozens more arrive every month. Before the Somalis arrived, the Lewiston school system employed one teacher of English as a second language. It now employs fifteen, for five hundred students, nearly all of them Somali. At parent-teacher-conference time, the schools hire extra interpreters. An improbable migration has turned into a large-scale social experiment.

The mayor, Laurier Raymond, tried to call the experiment off. In October, 2002, consulting no one, he wrote an open letter to the Somali community, asking people to stop bringing their families and friends to Lewiston. "Our city is maxed out financially, physically, and emotionally," he wrote. The Mayor was responding, in part, to the complaints of some constituents. Everyone had heard rumors: that the Somalis were getting free cars and vast sums of welfare money and preferment in public housing, and that they would soon bankrupt the town. The rumors were unfounded, but the fear and resentment they signified were real. It was not the best historical moment in which to be a Muslim immigrant in America, particularly not a Somali. There were the September 11th attacks, and then the release of the movie "Black Hawk Down." One of the American soldiers killed in the battle in Somalia which was depicted in the film had grown up near Lewiston, and images of his corpse being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu had been broadcast worldwide.

The Mayor's letter became a national news story, especially after a white-supremacist organization, the World Church of the Creator, based in Illinois, announced a rally in Lewiston to repel "the Somali invasion." The Lewiston Somalis were baffled and scared. An anti-racist counter-demonstration was quickly arranged. In January, 2003, state officials, including the governor and the attorney general, addressed a passionate rally at Bates College, in Lewiston, that drew forty-five hundred people. Meanwhile, across town, the neo-Nazis drew a crowd generously estimated at thirty-two, most of them out-of-staters. The white supremacists have not been heard from since, at least not formally. Mayor Raymond retired, and Lewiston got on with its experiment.

Next »

This article originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine on December 11, 2006 and appears here with permission from the author.