Letter From Maine: New in Town


Somali schoolchildren in the United States. Somali schoolchildren in the United States.

Fatuma Hussein cast a kind of sidelong light on this issue when she described the shock that she felt on arriving in America. Having escaped the horrors of the civil war and spent years in a refugee camp in Kenya, she was resettled, first, in suburban Atlanta, where she was sent to an all-white high school. "And I tell you," she said, "American high school is the cruellest place I've been."

Omar Ahmed, the playwright, is one of the few Somalis in Lewiston who have been able to get a mortgage and buy a house. "I asked the real-estate guy, 'Who are the neighbors?' He said, 'How should I know? All I know is this house, what's wrong with it, what's good with it. Are you crazy?' I said, 'I need to know who the neighbors are.' He wouldn't help me. So I went next door, knocked on the door, and an old French lady answered. She was scared, hard of hearing, and then her son came, very big, very aggressive. 'What you want?' I told him, 'Don't worry. I am a black man, but I come in peace.' And so they invited me in, and we talked, and we became friends. They told me about the other neighbors. They've helped us so much. I never owned a house in a cold place before. What's a furnace? There is a lot to learn. But this is why we love Maine so much, because the people are so kind."

We were sitting in the living room, where Ahmed's wife, Barlin, was trying to watch "Enemy of the State," starring Will Smith, on a flat-screen TV. Barlin, who studied economics in Mogadishu, speaks Somali, Arabic, and Italian better than she does English. She now works in the escrow department of a bank in Lewiston. A grown daughter, who is a packer at L. L. Bean, walked in, exhausted, from work.

In Ahmed's job as a welfare case manager, he must inform applicants for general assistance whether they qualify for benefits. "At first, when I had to give a negative answer to Somalis, they all said, 'You're like the whites!' And when I had to give whites a negative decision they said, 'You're against us!' But now I start by explaining the system in detail, the guidelines, before I tell them the decision. Then they understand. And I can give them referrals to other agencies for food, and so on, which makes them happier. There is an answer for everything."

When the Bantus started arriving in Lewiston, Omar Ahmed was one of the first local Somalis they turned to. Since he came from their part of Somalia and knew their culture, he was sympathetic. He became an advocate for them. And, as it happened, he was one of only two non-Bantu Somalis present at the slide show presented by Catherine Besteman. Afterward, however, according to Besteman, Ahmed was distraught. Why had only Bantus been there? Why had the whole community not been invited? Besteman thought the answer was self-evident. But Omar Ahmed couldn't see it. And he is no longer perceived in Lewiston as an advocate for the Bantus.

Sheikh Mohamed, the young Bantu who works at Wal-Mart, calls the Hillview public-housing project, where he lives with his family, "paradise." It's on the eastern edge of Lewiston, out past Insane Car Audio, just under a wooded ridge. In the fall, the trees form a blazing, colorful backdrop for an array of fifteen two-story buildings, containing ninety-four apartments. Somali women chat on cell phones on their front stoops while their toddlers play on the neatly mown grass.

"For a lot of Lewiston Somalis, this is the place," Carla Harris, the manager of resident services for Lewiston's public housing, said. "It's like a village." Seventy percent of the Hillview population is now Somali. Harris still hears complaints from local whites. "Just the other day, I had somebody tell me, 'I heard you guys get twenty thousand dollars for every Somali family you take in.' " Harris made a rueful face, as if to say, I wish. "But it's gone well. There used to be more of a crime issue here, before the Somalis came. Now there's nothing. The kids are becoming Americanized, but there's still no drinking, no drugs. We see their kids going off to college. They are not going to be second-generation public housing."

Sahara in class in AtlantaSahara in class in Atlanta.

A basketball court outside her office was filled with children. Some of the bigger boys, Somalis and a couple of white kids, were playing an intense half-court game. The Somalis had already mastered some advanced moves. Around Lewiston, which is a sports-mad town, the talk these days is about a couple of promising Somali soccer players at Lewiston High. Somali girls are expected to come straight home after classes to help with housework, and most of their parents refuse to allow them to wear American-style athletic outfits. Still, some play on sports teams, in some cases wearing spandex under their hijabs or, for basketball, replacing the head scarf with a bandanna.

Harris showed me the community center at Hillview. "We don't have a Christmas party anymore," she said. "And dogs are really not O.K. A cop brought Sarge, the police dog, around, and the Somali kids were intrigued. But they couldn't come near. We wouldn't do that now." (Many Muslims consider dogs unclean.) She went on, "We've got a lot of good programs for kids. Bates students are a big part of it -- they do the tutoring. We've got a marching band. We got a Stephen King grant for band equipment."

I was surprised, knowing how controversial music was among the Somalis.

"Well, we've never had a Somali kid get involved in the music program," Harris said, a bit sheepishly. "Now we're calling it Music Education, saying it's not for fun. We'll see if that flies." (Several Somali children have since signed up.)

I asked about the Somali Bantus. "They seemed behind at first," Harris said. "Their knowledge of indoor plumbing, thermostats -- stuff like that -- wasn't up to speed. I wasn't sure what was going on between them and the other Somalis. Then I had one of them hang back after a meeting with our translator, and when everybody was gone he said to me, 'We were their slaves.'"

Harris tilted her head, as if recalling a moment of shock. "But it'll be O.K., I think," she said. "They seem to get along."

I went to see Sheikh Mohamed in his Hillview apartment. The rooms were tiny, boxy, with print tapestries on the walls. He was putting on a Wal-Mart smock for his evening shift. During the day, he takes classes at Central Maine Community College, where he is working toward a degree in public health. There was African pop music blasting in the kitchen, and I could see his wife swaying to it as she cooked. I remembered Mohamed saying, of non-Bantu Somalis, "They're not African. They're part Arab. We're pure African." I had come to see an Af-Maay-Maay dictionary -- thought to be the first of its kind -- that Mohamed and some of his friends were helping to put together. While I leafed through the dictionary -- handwritten, very much a work in progress -- Mohamed looked out a window.

"Hillview is the safest place I ever saw," he said.

His mother was still in Somalia, farming in the Middle Jubba Valley, where he grew up. Mohamed was worried about her. "It's not peaceful there, and not possible to phone." He and some relatives had fled in 1991, after militias began attacking the Bantus. On the trek to Kenya, they hid in the bush from bandits. Three people in their group died of hunger and thirst.

Mohamed had to leave for work. I asked if his Wal-Mart job was difficult. He paused, gave me a long, slightly embarrassed look, and said, "No."

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