The Northeast

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The Somali Bantu Community Association of Maine


July 17, 2015 —
In 2012, there were about 1,000 Bantu immigrants in Lewiston, Maine.

The Somali Bantu Community Mutual Assistance Association of Lewiston/Auburn Maine (SBCMALA) serves the local Bantu community, focusing on housing, employment, literacy and education, health, and safety matters. It also runs an agriculture program for resident Bantus.

Before I leave Rhode Island, I search and find a listing online for the SBCMALA. It is located on Lisbon Street in Lewiston. Numerous E-Mails to the listed E-Mail address go unanswered, so I decide to make the trip anyway and hope for the best.

As soon as I cross the bridge into Lewiston, I quickly find Lisbon Street.


It is still early, so businesses are not yet open. I park my car in front of this market and when I pull out my camera, I notice this gentleman who has been watching me, turn quickly away and dash off down the street.



These bags of grains were piled high in the front window of the store, and I spot the one Goya brand bag of rice among the others.


As I walk up and down Lisbon Street I begin to feel uneasy. I realize that I’m being watched. I look for anyone with whom I can have a friendly conversation, but only notice people ducking in and out of buildings and others who glare or peer out of windows and doors. As I walk closer to each door, the person looking out turns and walks away. I find doors locked.

No one seems to want anything to do with me.



As I am about to get back into my car I hear some loud hoots and this group of teens beckons for me to take their picture. They stop, flashed me some signs and walk away chattering in Somali.

After an hour of wandering up and down Lisbon Street, I walk around the corner and sit on a park bench. There, I spot these two young people (below) walking across the park toward a church building down the street, where I notice a group of Somali families congregating for their morning prayer. At that point, out of respect for their prayer traditions, I decide I would not make any further attempts to talk to anyone.


I never imagined that getting access to the Somali community in Lewiston would be so challenging. I realize that, as a homogeneous Islamic culture, Somalis in this small Maine town are wary of outsiders.

Understandably, their wariness intensified in the media-frenzied aftermath of the Lewiston mayor’s open letter asking the Somalis “to please pass the word” and stop settling in Lewiston. When that happened, just as the Rhode Island Coalition for Immigrants Rights group in the year 2000 felt a need to show solidarity when we saw racist overtones in the letter, the media began to arrive to Lewiston en masse to cover this story. I believe that incident broke any trust that Somalis may have had with Americans and made it difficult for people like me to cross this symbolic border wall to gain their trust.

Even though I did not speak with anyone this day, I feel I learned a lot about immigrant life on this trip to Lewiston, Maine.

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