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Letter From Maine: New in Town

Somali refugees began arriving in Lewiston, Maine (pop. 36,000) six years ago. Word spread that Lewiston had good schools, a low crime rate and cheap housing — and the Somalis began arriving in droves.

rain in a Dry Land - Most newly resettled refugees find work doing entry-level jobs in housekeeping, manufacturing, agriculture and the like and live humbly by American standards.

Most newly resettled refugees find work doing entry-level jobs in housekeeping, manufacturing, agriculture and the like and live humbly by American standards.

Unemployment in the Somali community is estimated at fifty percent. Alex Nicolaou, an employment counsellor for Catholic Charities in Maine, who works mainly with Somalis, told me that in the Lewiston area a number of refugees are employed by the Dunkin' Donuts plant, a printer and a tampon manufacturer. In Freeport, twenty miles away, L. L. Bean has a giant packing facility that hires many Somalis, particularly during the Christmas season. L. L. Bean's call center, however, like the many telemarketing companies in the area, has few jobs for people with less than standard English.

In some cases, Nicolaou believes, employers use his clients' lack of English as an excuse not to hire them. "If language is a problem, we provide interpreters, free of charge," he said. Many jobs, for that matter, don't require more than a small English vocabulary. But some managers don't bother with excuses. "I have actually had employers say, 'I won't hire black people,' " Nicolaou told me. "Or 'I won't hire Muslims.' I had an H.R. person — this was at a big firm — tell me, 'People need to have been in the country at least one year.' I said, 'That's illegal. Why?' She said, 'Because they might be terrorists. They might plant a bomb or something.'

"A lot of companies have uniform requirements," Nicolaou went on. "No hijab, or it has to be modified. People want to pray five times a day, and employers ask about that. We explain, 'Just give people a place and a few minutes a day.' That is easily handled. Really, my clients just want to work."

In July, a local man threw a frozen pig's head into the Lewiston mosque while people were praying. He claimed that it was a harmless prank, but almost no one believed him, and there were calls for a federal hate-crime prosecution. Top state officials, including the governor, came to Lewiston, just as they had during the duelling rallies of 2003. But among the Somalis, Omar Ahmed told me, the current imam "counselled people not to overreact, to show we are good people by being cool." The man was barred from approaching the mosque and faces a variety of criminal charges, but by fall the incident seemed largely forgotten.

The mosque sits behind a scruffy unmarked storefront on Lisbon Street, next to Caveman and Associates Tattoo Studio. Nuh Iman, the imam, is slight, dark-skinned, and full-bearded, and, on the day I met him, he wore a black-and-white-checked shawl and tinted glasses. With a show of reluctance, he took me to a large upstairs room. Persian rugs covered the floor and windows. The room was a mess, and the building seemed to be falling down around us. "The financial condition of this mosque is very low," he said.

Iman came to the United States in the nineteen-eighties, he said, as part of a military training program. He was then in the Somali Air Force. But things were deteriorating in Somalia, so he stayed. He had come to Lewiston only in 2005, and he planned to return to his home, in northern Virginia, soon. He found life in Lewiston "a bit slow."

I asked him about the Bantus in Lewiston.

"These people are not Bantus," he said. "They just say that so they can get distinction as refugees." He told me (contrary to all historical scholarship) that the people known as Somali Bantus are actually members of minor southern Somali clans, and that the real Bantu "were indigenous people all over Somalia—hunters, like the Indians here, who don't want to settle in cities."

I asked if the Bantus were not, then, the descendants of slaves.

"No, they were not slaves," he said. "Nobody slaved nobody in Somalia."

The imam began to talk about religious doctrine, explaining which local jobs were haram. "If you're a drinks waiter, you're poisoning people — that's haram. But if you're just clearing dishes it's O.K." He went on, "People in Somalia like plays and concerts. But every concert is no good, especially when they talk about love and sex. You are waking up the population. Big band is not allowed in Islam. The big drum, saxophone, trombone, xylophone — Satan created those things."

Rain in a Dry Land - Somali women in hijab.

Somali women in hijab.

Other Somalis in Lewiston take a less puritanical view. The young social worker told me that when Somalis asked him whether it was haram, for example, to deliver a pizza with a bacon topping, he told them to worry about keeping their jobs. Still, there has been a distinct shift, in the past few years, among the Lewiston Somalis, toward stricter religious observance. Women who never wore hijab in Somalia — where miniskirts were once popular in the cities — told me that they always do in Maine. Prayers and fasting have, by all accounts, become more common. In part, this revival predates their migration. Fatuma Hussein, a young mother of five, who fled Mogadishu as a teenager, recalled that during the civil war "people were saying, 'Why did this happen to us? It must be loose women, and drinking alcohol, and going to cinemas.' Even my mother, who is still in Nairobi, she wears the hijab today." (In contrast, the traditional practice of female-genital mutilation, which is almost universal in Somalia, seems to have been abandoned in Maine.)

For some, religiosity is a reaction to cultural dislocation. One Somali college student I met who wears the hijab—in her case, an ankle-length black tunic, worn over pants, and a scarf, covering everything but her face and hands—told me that she had begun to do so only six years ago. She spoke immaculate Gen Y English and could knowledgeably discuss hip-hop videos one moment and, in the next, citing the Prophet Muhammad, argue that music is haram. ("It deadens the heart," she said.) For her, living in a non-Muslim country, she said, "My ethnicity is my anchor."

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





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