At a campaign rally in Portland, Maine, President Donald Trump linked worsening crime in Maine to the influx of Somali refugees there. He blamed their large community in Minnesota for straining the state’s social safety net and bringing potential recruits for Islamic terrorist groups.
“You see it happening,” Trump said. “You read about it.”
Long before Trump turned refugee resettlement into a national flash point, Cynthia Anderson was immersing herself in Lewiston, Maine, a small white town that came to host one of the largest populations of Somali-Americans in the country, for her timely, richly detailed book “Home Now.”
Anderson grew up in a village 45 miles away and recalled the area’s gradual decline leading up to 2001, when the first Somali refugees arrived in nearby Portland.
She reported on Lewiston’s transformation for more than a decade, moving from seeing Somali newcomers as passive victims traumatized by war to people with complex, resilient trajectories.
One of the most compelling threads in her book follows the struggles of Jamilo Maalim as a single mother trying to balance child-rearing, her search for a marriage of equals and her identity as an independent working woman.
Anderson also writes about Fatuma Hussein, a community leader and advocate for Somali women who admires Maine’s civility and is optimistic about relations between natives and newcomers. She speaks out in opposition to Trump’s election, yet she is also forthright about the challenges of merging different cultures in Lewiston.
The town is not prepared to absorb the arrivals so quickly; the mayor draws headlines for saying Lewiston is “maxed out.”
Anderson deftly sums up the tension by noting that the new refugees were not ungrateful — but nor were they just grateful. They got criticized for taking assistance, but they also got criticized for taking initiative.
Though the book paints a mostly rosy picture of how refugees can revitalize a community, Anderson is honest about her qualms.
During debates over a state bill aimed at the Somali-American community to ban female genital mutilation (FGM), she admits to being conflicted. Anderson is initially opposed, and doesn’t want to see the Somali community hurt, but nor does she want harm to come to any Somali girls.
Anderson also acknowledges that the refugee vetting process warrants examination, noting that records can be inadequate in war-torn countries. She considers it fair to question how long refugees take to become self-sufficient, finding answers inconsistent and hard to find.
“I also think journalists, including me, sometimes don’t push for answers lest they appear insensitive or out of fear they’ll provide ammunition to haters,” she admits. “But not asking and not knowing provides fertile ground for rumors to flourish. It’s also patronizing; Lewiston’s newcomers can withstand the scrutiny.”
Anderson raises these questions through her portrait of Jared Bristol, driven after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to become an activist against Islamic extremism. Bristol advocates for the FGM bill during a hearing that’s one of the only times Anderson sees Muslims and anti-Islamists in the same place.
Such activists, Anderson writes, “are wrong if they believe I absorbed nothing they and other anti-Islamists said or that my thinking didn’t shift, however incrementally.”
Scrutiny comes anew when a man dies of a fatal head injury after being attacked by several teens of African descent.
Some members of the community try to open up a dialogue, mourning and reflecting on how they can better understand each other.
Anderson concludes that Mainers feel that integrating refugees is worth the effort, even as it has taken time and money.
“Two decades ago, Lewiston was a beautiful old ghost of a city,” she writes. “It needed to stake a claim in the twenty-first century. It has.”
By: Cynthia Anderson.
Publisher: Public Affairs, 318 pages, $28.
Event: 7 p.m. Jan. 9, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.