As the crowd applauded, Maine’s change and potential for growth stood on a field last Saturday. The Lewiston boys’ cross-country team grinned, as one member held the state class A trophy.
While every new generation is an opportunity for growth and a new direction, something was different about these young men. Just listing the scorers’ names tells everyone they were not from Lewiston’s traditional Franco population: Farhan Abdillahi, Isaiah Harris, Mohamed Awil, Osman Mohamed and Mohamed Mohamed (also known as MoMo.) Not all of these runners are immigrants or from Somali backgrounds, but most are, and all are from, at some point, African descent.
The Lewiston boys’ win shows us that Maine’s immigrant communities have already become a part of the fabric of Maine.
When Somalis began migrating to Lewiston a dozen years ago, it wasn’t easy for them or for many of the city’s long-time residents.
In 2002, a letter-writer to the Sun Journal explained her discomfort, “I have finally decided why the influx of Somalis bothers me so much. . . The Somalis are going to change the Maine I know and love. I doubt that they will ever develop the Maine accent that I love and cherish.” Left unacknowledged and perhaps not understood was the alteration Franco immigrants themselves brought to Maine’s tone and intonation and their poor reception by Mainers upon arrival, both preceding their now-solid place within the state.
Somali immigrants have increasingly incorporated themselves into the broader community. Whether it’s the team members who run along Mainers with deep multigenerational roots or the college student who misses a day of class to be sworn in as a citizen by a federal judge, they have become us. While tensions have not disappeared, it’s clear migrants are part of Maine.
Even more, immigrants are crucial for the state’s economic future. Right now, Maine’s economy is nearly stalled. But immigrants’ businesses provide a bright spot. Recently University of Southern Maine economist Charles Colgan said that stores owned by immigrants are doing fairly well, likely better than other retail establishments.
You can see immigrant communities’ entrepreneurship in the retail establishments on Lewiston’s Lisbon Street and beyond.
One Lewiston businessman, profiled for the 10-year anniversary of Somalis in Maine, kept a grueling and inspiring schedule. Hussein Ahmed took masters’ level classes in leadership studies, while working in his shop into the night six days a week. He combined this with community leadership and raising a large family.
Ahmed’s story reminds me of my family’s, of my father’s babyhood in the small store his Eastern European immigrant parents ran in Brooklyn, N.Y. In his case, my dad was the first family member with any education past high school, but that second-generation went to school, started their own businesses and entered professions. This is the American story.
Immigrants can change difficult demographics dynamics. Maine has a slow-growing population, realities related to being among the oldest and whitest states in the country. On average, immigrants tend to be relatively young and have large families. The Migration Policy Institute reports Maine’s “foreign-born population has grown by 16.5 percent in the last 11 years,” a rate far faster than other groups.
Attracting immigrants can help Maine grow and prosper, helping to attract others to the Pine Tree state. Indeed, younger Mainers who have left and people considering moving to Maine often mention a desire for greater cultural diversity.
Encouraging people new to the country to come to our state helps all of us. State government needs to fund the Welcome Center for skilled, professional immigrants established in last session’s workforce bill and make it clear we want new people from many populations.
If our state is to have a vibrant future, we need more young people and the greater economic growth they will bring.
As for the speeding Lewiston boys, running and winning were what they were about last Saturday, as their five top runners were among the 20 fastest in the contest. Asked about the race, Mohammed Awil said, “I feel awesome right now. We kind of started out slow the first mile and picked up the pace the second mile. I am glad to be a captain of this team.” And now they are a part of our Maine team.