Lewiston, Maine – It’s a Good Story

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“The way they play together, the way they get along, that’s the future of our cultures together…” – Coach Mike McGgraw

The story of Lewiston, Maine is a good story. It’s a story of integration and resilience and how a group of refugees and immigrants can revitalize a dying community.

It all began in the late 1990s when Lewiston was a dying city. Historically a mill town, Lewiston had long seen an economic downturn and jobs had vanished like the leaves off a tree in late fall. In 2001 that changed.

An extended family of Somali refugees found Lewiston. They decided it was cheap to live and may be a good place to begin their lives anew, far from the refugee camps that had been their homes for many years. It was a secondary migration from where they had originally been settled. They told other Somalis about the city, stating it was a place with low crime, cheap housing, and decent education. Soon more refugees and immigrants began to arrive from Somalia, Congo, Kenya and more.

It wasn’t all easy. At one point soon after the arrival of the initial group, the mayor wrote a letter to community leaders asking that they discourage others from coming. There was a public outcry to the letter, with community members and supporters rallying around the community and pointing out the gift that they were and could continue to be to a city that badly needed a new face and spirit.

That was around 16 years ago. Today, Lewiston is a picture of what can happen in a community when refugees and immigrants are welcomed and invited to flourish.

By all accounts, most credit the influx of Somalis, Sudanese, Congolese and other immigrants to Lewiston’s successful comeback. Businesses have sprung up, adult education classes are booming, but nothing represents this community more than their champion soccer team.

The change to the team began when a group of teenagers from the community approached the coach and asked about the soccer team. They assured him that they could play, and that they would play and make the team good. In 2015 the soccer team won the state championship and were ranked as high as 17th in the entire nation.

The story of the soccer team has been filmed and is a poignant picture of a group of kids coming together, playing above the fray of national politics and national and local prejudice. It is a good story to remember during a year when good stories are difficult to find.

Changing demographics and communities makes for hard work. It is hard on the newcomers, and it is hard on the old timers. It requires far more than mere tolerance; instead it requires first identifying, and then challenging our own cultural assumptions. It asks that we look at our own values and beliefs, and commit to communicating across those boundaries. It has taken a lot of time, but Lewiston, Maine can teach us much about what this change looks like, and how to continue the hard work of communicating across boundaries in order to make our communities stronger.

When asked about the team, one of the coaches said that though his own background is far from the refugee camps of East Africa, it doesn’t matter. The players bring something to the field that transcends geography.


On Thursday night, I will have the privilege of speaking at a conference in Lewiston and I am honored. I’ll be writing more about this, but for right now take a look at this short film.

Wrapping up Quite a Week…..

20130408-213015.jpgToday’s wrap-up will be short and sweet. It was a long week beginning in Istanbul and ending in Cambridge lockdown. How different life looked for so many a week ago? Boston will slowly heal on the outside but I am of the unpopular opinion that to heal on the inside takes more than time and therapy; it takes a Saviour and the miracle of redemption.

So today I am primarily going to highlight posts on Communicating Across Boundaries that you may have missed. But first let me send you to the happiest, funnest, truest post that I read all week. I’ll include a few paragraphs so that you are drawn in and can’t wait to finish it over at Huffpost. It comes from my favorite blogger, Djibouti Jones and is called Turning Black and in this week of sorrow – you need to read this! Trust me!

“We’ll turn black pretty soon,” Maggie told Henry. They sat together on the front steps of our home in Somaliland. Henry tossed pebbles at the neighbor’s goats grazing on the weeds in our yard and Maggie brushed her dolly’s hair.

I was trying, unsuccessfully, to coax green bean plants from the rocky soil beside the house. I beat back locusts, fought off goats and sheep, drenched the soil with bottled water, anything for a bite of fresh green vegetable, but the plants would not grow. I leaned back on my heels, listening to the twins’ conversation.

“I know,” Henry said. “Probably on our birthday.” We had been in Somaliland for five months and they were six weeks away from turning 3.

“You won’t turn black,” I said. “You’re white, like Karisa.”

Karisa was another American girl living in our village. Her dad taught history at Amoud University and worked with my husband Tom, a physics professor.

“Karisa isn’t old enough to turn yet,” Maggie said. “She just turned 2.”

“White mommies and white daddies make white kids,” I said. “Black mommies and black daddies make black babies.” I pulled the skin of my forearm. “So you are white.”

Henry shook his head. “No. Jack and Negasti are black.”

Jack was Somali-Chinese and Negasti was Ethiopian and they lived two hours away, in the capital of northern Somalia, Hargeisa. They were adopted by Americans, a white mommy and a white daddy. Jack was 7 and Negasti was 5.

“They turned black on their birthdays,” Henry said. Be sure to read the rest here at Turning Black – Why My Kids See Race Differently.

For the rest of the wrap-up check out these posts from the week if you haven’t already – particularly the one on Loss by Robynn.

On Tragedy:In the midst of tragedy – A Call to Pray

On Loss: Robynn’s article on loss should not be missed so I am linking to it again to make sure you get it. Read it here

On Lockdown: Yesterday was spent in lockdown. Around 2:30 in the afternoon we phoned Trader Joe’s desperate for milk and eggs, but to no avail. The intrepid Dunkin’ Donuts was, however, open – making me proud of Boston! Here are my thoughts on lockdown.

May you rest today and through the weekend. I’m signing off until Monday. Thanks again – for caring enough to read in the midst all the other information online. I never take it for granted. 

Fabric and Grace

Fabric and graceIn the bleak, dull grey of winter, refugees from Somalia, Ghana, and Chad stand out like blazing rays of sunshine; sunshine made of fabric and grace.Wearing my customary black pants and sweater, the assumed business wear of the Career Woman in Boston, I feel drab in comparison. The only color is in my cheeks – red from the cold. I look around and wish I had worn my scarf, purchased for a bargain from a vendor in the Khan el Khalili bazaar in Cairo, boasting colors of brilliant fuchsia, orange, purple, and red beautifully blended into a woven pattern.

The fabric and grace of these refugee patients strikes me. The cloth is light cotton, useless against the chill of the season, but so beautiful. So unexpected. So rich and full of stories.

It’s draped artistically but practically over body and shoulders, a piece of their identity that they struggle to keep despite the winter cold. Heavy coats, purchased from women’s clothing aisles at the Salvation Army and Goodwill stores in the city, hang on chair backs as they sit in the waiting room of this busy community health center.

The United Nations can boast nothing over this waiting room. At any point there are over 70 languages being spoken from over 60 countries.

Each face tells a story, each body represents a journey, each soul a trauma, all wrapped up in fabric and grace.

I want to stop and ask them questions, find out their stories, write their stories and make sure all see them. But I have to go, have to leave all this color and go to a black and white meeting void of fabric or grace. So I smile, say hello, soak in the smiles I’m given in return — more sunshine.

I shake my head in amazement at the resilience of the human spirit, Grace indeed.

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The Immigrant Vote

English: Ballot Box showing preferential voting

“I know that I say this at the risk of over-sentimentalizing electoral politics, but seeing immigrants vote is the best thing about America” Annie Rebekah Gardner

I have two friends who voted for the first time on Tuesday. Both of them just became American citizens. One is from Romania and the other from South Africa. They were both elated.

It was a Big.Deal!

In the voting queue I was in back of a couple. As they talked with the man beside them it became clear that they too were voting for the first time as American citizens. In the early morning rush to the polls, as people waited in a line that went out the door and down the block, they were excited, engaged, happier then everyone around them.

My daughter Annie was behind a gentleman from Somalia, in line with his little girl, in line to voteSomalia has not had a functioning effective government for years. While I don’t know this gentleman’s story, I’ve heard other immigrant/refugee stories of walking to refugee camps, avoiding terrorist attacks, famine and disease. It’s a picture that we sitting on comfortable couches on this Saturday morning, or out to breakfast with friends, or getting our early morning shopping done at massive grocery stores with every imaginable food available,  cannot imagine. For him, voting was a big deal!

Voting was a gift.

It’s yet another lesson I learn from my immigrant friends. They take none of this for granted. They go and cast their votes with pride and excitement – not with disillusionment in a party and a process. They are fully engaged in this process and wear their new citizenship with the pride of belonging.

The immigrant vote keeps us grounded and honest. Newcomers to the United States have a different worldview and first-hand experience in countries where the freedom to vote is not a guarantee; not a right.

The phrase “We are a nation of immigrants” is overused and because of this it is under appreciated. But there’s nothing like being at a polling booth, with no fear of guns or bombs or violence, waiting in line with immigrants who have walked a long journey to get to the ballot box, to make one really proud to be part of this “Nation of Immigrants”

And so I salute you my immigrant friends – particularly those who have voted for the first time. You’ve walked a long journey to get to this place. Thanks for encouraging and challenging me. We are so lucky to have you in this country.

Garbage Day

In the city of Cambridge garbage day is on Friday. On this day large plastic containers line the streets; the plain grey one and the blue one – distinguished by its familiar triangle and bold white letters that say Recycling“. Sidewalks crowded with these bins, make a normally “walkable” town uncomfortable and difficult.

Depending on the time of year the items thrown into the garbage, destined to fill landfills forever, can make your eyes pop.

A gentleman who is a refugee, recently resettled to the United States, commented to me that he was amazed at garbage day.“Garbage day” he said “is the hardest day for me” He went on to speak of plastic containers and couches, bookshelves and desks all on the street to be picked up by enormous trucks that would crush them into small pieces and then pack those pieces into other refuse previously picked up – the real garbage.

The man was from Somalia. Since the early nineties Somalia has seen an increase in poverty, a decrease in availability of health care resources, conflict within and chaos in the government – in short, overall instability. And it doesn’t seem to be getting better or easier. The shock of going from poverty to plenty hits him the hardest on garbage day.

He’s right – it’s a huge shock to look at what we throw out. I know people who have furnished their entire house through “shopping” on garbage day. We have several pieces of furniture that are from someone’s garbage, retooled to look beautiful in our living and other rooms.

We’re told that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, but it seems that there is a glaring lack of understanding of what is and what isn’t garbage. Chairs, tables, couches – garbage or just discards? Are they instantly recyclable, needing only a fresh coat of paint or stain, a lace cloth and flowers, or a couch cover? In other words – is it really garbage? Or can we rethink this garbage thing? Rethink it in terms of those with plenty being aware of those without plenty.

International students are always in need of furniture and other items. Often here for only a short time, they live simply and sparsely. Refugees and new immigrants often have the need for furniture, dishes, and containers – things that people may have grown tired of and so discarded on garbage day unaware of the need around the corner. Our neighbors may be in need of something that we are throwing out and if we knew them we could meet the need.

The words of this refugee from Somalia  have stayed with me. I am looking at my “garbage” with a more critical eye, ultimately wanting garbage day to be about real garbage. And along with that being more aware of the needs of people around me so that my discards can potentially become their treasure.

Blogger’s Note: Last week after writing my guest post at Tamara Out Loud, I received a comment from a reader in South Africa. She found my blog during the 4am feeding of her baby. As I read it I was amazed at the grace of connection. It turned out we knew each other – both having worked at the state, her in the refugee health program, and me in women’s health. I didn’t know that we shared the same faith – turns out we do and I can’t stop thinking about this.  I followed her over to her blog and am amazed and challenged by what I see on a commitment to simple living. I bring this up during this post because Jo blogs at The Concrete Gardener and she began her blog  for these reasons:

  • Enjoy what we have.
  • Not take more than we need.
  • Use what we have really well.

I urge you to take a look at her blog and get a glimpse of her commitment to the three things listed above.

Beyond the Headlines – A Dramatic Ending

At the end of October when the apple season was just ending and leaves were still a golden-red I blogged about the high cost of service.

The basis for my post was a story that I described as ” tucked in the back pages of newspapers from various news organizations around the world” about three aid workers who who were kidnapped in Somalia. My friend Pegi had brought the story to my attention. She had a personal connection with the family of one of the people kidnapped and was praying fervently and feeling deeply for this woman and those who loved her. At the time of the story the identities of the three had not been released so they were reduced to “anonymous aid workers” stuck on page three of a newspaper. A day later one of the three was released while two remained in captivity: Jessica Buchanan from America and Paul Thisted from Denmark.

And then the story faded and died, tossed out in the recycling bin with old papers. Yesterday in a dramatic resurrection that took the coveted spot on front pages of newspapers and primetime news networks was the ending to the story. Arriving by helicopter the Navy Seals raided the compound where the two aid workers were held and rescued them, flying them back to their respective homes.

This story made the headlines and rightly so, but beyond the headlines were months of waiting and longing. Beyond the headlines, were families that didn’t even make it to page three of any newspaper, holding out hope that these people who they loved would be released. Three long months of hoping, praying, waiting, and pleading. Three long months of little news where many had forgotten the story existed, but it was still going on.

It got me thinking about all the stories where we hear the beginning, and sometimes the end, but never the middle; those “beyond the headlines” stories. For every headline story of a murder, there are two families beyond whose lives are interrupted with pain – that of the victim and that of the perpetrator. For every headline sex scandal, there is a couple beyond whose marriage is severely compromised and badly in need of healing. For every headline of a sports victory, there are athletes beyond who sweat and train and discipline their bodies.

In a world where bad news floods our inboxes and ear drums, the dramatic ending to the kidnapping is good news. This is a story of bravery and compassion on the part of the aid workers, and skill and courage on the part of the rescuers. It’s also a story of a lot of beyond the headlines prayer, hope and courage.  It’s a good story. It’s a story that makes you think about hope and hope fulfilled. It’s a story with an impact that will reach far beyond any headlines.

Bloggers note: You can read the original blog post here

We Are The One Percent

I knew there was something bothering me about the slogan used in the Occupy Wall Street Protests. Maybe it was when a man burst into a restaurant screaming “$@%& the Patriot Act” – what did the patriot act have to do with the 99%?  Or maybe it was two people, dressed comfortably in coats and shoes, rudely interacting with the immigrant man who runs the fruit stand on the corner as he politely asked them to move away so people could buy fruit. Was I seeing legitimate protesters, passionate for change, or was I seeing anarchists with no real agenda or solutions?  On Sunday I realized that I had not yet identified what really troubled me after a friend posted a challenging picture on her Facebook wall.

We are the 1%. Others do not live like we do in the United States. Remembering the starving babies and toddlers in Pakistan, their bones sticking through translucent, dehydrated skin, their lips puckered at a mom’s empty breast – they are the 99%. Moving on to Somalia, women and children walking towards the borders to escape extremists and famine, a double threat, almost falling to the ground in exhaustion – they are the 99%. Or how about Kolkata, slums burgeoning with people, poverty inescapable.

We, with homes to go to, bikes to ride, ability to protest without fear, heat in the winter, fans in the summer, and lattes once the protest is finished – we are the one percent. Perhaps what we need is to be saved from ourselves.

Bloggers Note: There are legitimate frustrations from the Occupy Wall Street group, and I agree with many of them. The money given to Wall Street was money ill spent. The outrageous salaries and bonuses given to many is mind-boggling. But, just as in public health when we get a message wrong and have to rethink it, as well as rewrite it, in order to get the response we want, I believe the “We are the 99%” messaging needs to be rethought and retooled.