Give Us Your Tired...Just Not All of Them

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Hibat, a ninth grader, has black and white friends at the local high school

Samsam Mohamed just wants a good place to raise her family. It was what she prayed for when she and her husband Hussein fled war-scarred Somalia in 1991; what she dreamed of a decade ago, when they left a crowded refugee camp in Kenya to immigrate to the U.S.; and what she thought she had found when they settled in a five-bedroom house in the Atlanta suburb of Stone Mountain, Ga. Then, in the fall of 2000, when Mohamed, 39, broke her leg and was unable to work and help pay the rent, the family's security seemed at risk again. A Somali friend living in Maine offered a solution: the homeless shelters there were so spacious, she said, that Mohamed could comfortably raise her six children in one.

Hussein was skeptical, but Samsam loaded the kids in a rental car and headed north. Soon after she arrived in Portland, a social worker told her there were vacant houses in nearby Lewiston. "Do they have a school there?" Mohamed asked. "A medical doctor? Groceries?" They did. "Then I'll go," she said.

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Which is how Mohamed became among the first of some 1,100 Somalis who moved into this declining former mill town of 36,000 in just the past 111/42 years. Lewiston's mostly white, working-class residents were gracious at first. But as more and more Somalis streamed into the city, some of the natives began to grumble.

The only knowledge most had about Somalia was from Black Hawk Down — Ridley Scott's graphic depiction of the 1993 raid in which Somali militias killed 18 U.S. soldiers, including one from a town that borders Lewiston. It didn't help that many Somalis are dependent on social services, taxing the already limited resources of the city. "I don't know what kind of grants the Somalis are getting, but they seem to be at the top of the list," says Linda Hubbard, 42, who moved from Lewiston to nearby Auburn. "A lot of us are just getting by."

Tensions first flared at Lewiston High School when nearly 80 new Somali students showed up for the first day of class last fall. More than 100 students, up from 20 the previous year, enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes. Rumors spread that the Somalis, who are mainly Muslims, were washing their feet in the school water fountain before they prayed. Then fights broke out in the cafeteria between natives and newcomers. Friends told Mohamed's daughter Hibat, 14, that their parents wanted the Somalis to go back home.

Earlier this month, Mayor Laurier Raymond issued an open letter to the Somali elders urging them to stop the flow of migrants. "The Somali community must exercise some discipline and reduce the stress on our limited finances and our generosity," he wrote. "Now we need breathing room." The Somali leaders, in turn, accused the mayor of being a bigot. The spat made headlines around the world and prompted Somalis abroad to check in on their friends in Lewiston.

In an attempt to cool tempers, about 250 locals and Somalis, some carrying love thy neighbor! signs, recently joined one another in a Sunday walk from a downtown church to the local mosque. Hibat, one of the speakers at the march, told the gathering, "No matter what color, race, ethnicity or religion, we are all Americans and citizens of Lewiston."

And the Mohameds are trying to be good citizens and good neighbors. Mohamed is taking classes to improve her English. She has befriended an Irish-American girl nearby who calls her "Mom." Her husband Hussein works a 12-hour night shift at a local rubber factory. On his days off, he helps his fellow Somalis look for work. The townspeople are trying too. Mohamed recalls that last year a policeman asked her husband to call if he had any problems after Sept. 11, and a concerned teacher asked Hibat if she felt scared. Mohamed says she nods hello to her neighbors and they usually smile back. Indeed, she likes Lewiston so much that she talked it up to her brother in Atlanta, who now lives in the area.