By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.
Mayor of Lewiston
Yes, 10 years have passed since the arrival of our Somali immigrants. The first “recent” immigrants to arrive were the Togolese. There were only a few families. They spoke French, and they were Catholics. At the time, I was serving on the Sisters of Charity Health System Board of Directors.
An apartment building on Golder Street that had been used for the hospital’s office was renovated back to four apartments to receive four Togolese families. People from local Catholic Churches donated clothing, kitchen items, furniture, bedding, etc.—everything a family would need to get established. As a board, we scrubbed the entire inside of the building.
We named it “Maison Bienvenue” (Welcome House). Bishop Joseph Gerry came to a house opening and blessed it. It was a wonderful feeling to be part of an initiative to receive families that had to flee their home in order to save their lives.
Families from local Catholic Churches adopted families and introduced them to local shopping, the use of various items such as a thermostat and so on. You get the drift.
Shortly thereafter, our Somali refugees and secondary migrants began to arrive. They were Muslims, spoke a language none of us knew and they dressed differently. The reception wasn’t quite the same. There was no “Maison Bienvenue,” yet our hospitals were welcoming in service of any and all people.
After a white supremacist hate group came to Lewiston for a rally, a counter rally of some 4,000 to 5,000 people formed the “Many and One Coalition” for a counter-rally. That showed the world that we weren’t a prejudiced community as a whole, which was made up of the people of L-A and Maine.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t many who are prejudiced because there are. They express their prejudice in subtle and quiet ways under the surface. Folks may get mad at me for saying so, but it is a fact.
I am prejudiced; we are all prejudiced if we are true to ourselves. There is nothing wrong with that. It simply just is. The problem is when we act out on those prejudices.
Prejudices can take several forms: it can take the form of deliberate acts of hate, such as attacks that are illegal, or they can be subtle in conversations with those from one race or ethnicity talking about those who are different from their own. That too is wrong, and I have at times been as guilty as anyone else who has expressed themselves in this manner. When I have done so, in time I have come to realize that I was wrong.
What I am hearing from some religious leaders and other folks in the community is that there are still many who express negative comments about our refugee and new immigrant population with comments that they (meaning Somalis) are taking our welfare money and our taxes are going up, they dress differently, they don’t speak our language, etc., etc. These expressions are often simply based on myths. Some folks simply refuse to believe what is fact. Their perception is their reality, and their prejudice won’t allow them to accept what is truly fact.
Let me just share with you one fact. As I am writing this, I just got off the phone with the city’s General Assistance director. The number of refugee, immigrant and asylum cases that have come in for assistance makes up 14.48 percent of all cases that have come in to City Hall for help. That means that 85 percent of all cases have been for everyone else. That figure is tracked and is factual.
So to claim that refugees, secondary migrants and asylum seekers are the ones who are on welfare and don’t want to work is simply wrong. Yet there are those who will continue to believe that.
Strangely enough, as I listened to the Gospel reading at Mass this weekend, it struck a note with me about this perception of welfare. I share with you the Gospel according to St. Matthew about what Jesus told his disciples: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off.” (In the interest of brevity, the landowner repeated this at noon, three o’clock and five o’clock.)
“When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came they thought they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
As Americans, we have been blessed! Are we the grumblers, as are the ones in the above parable?
What concerns me is when I am walking out of church and a fellow parishioner stops and asks me, “What are we going to do about the downtown?” When I probe further, the person tells me, “All those Somali businesses, they have all kinds of things in the windows.”
My response was is, “I see this as a big plus; these had all been empty stores and now they are full and covering two city blocks.” These entrepreneurs are paying rent, taxes and circulating dollars in our community. They are contributing to life here Lewiston.
When someone makes some negative comment about refugees, I respond by asking, “Have you ever talked to one?” The answer is generally no. I suggest trying it; you will find that we have many similarities. We/they all seek the same things: quality of life, family life, employment, education, religion, music. The only differences are our customs, which come from our different cultures. For those of us who believe in God, we are all children of God. Consequently, we are one humanity in that we are all brothers and sisters.
The reality of life here in Lewiston and Auburn is that our refugee and immigrant neighbors will be here well beyond when we are all dead and gone. They will grow in number and sustain us as a community.
On the bottom floor of City Hall, there are photos of all the mayors since we became a city. There are 11 empty frames; one of them will be filled with my photo. When we read the names of the first group of mayors, we see English names, then Irish names and then French names. I predict that before the remaining empty frames are filled, we will see a photo of a Somali mayor. It is inevitable.
So while we are here together and despite the fact that we have cultural differences, why can’t we be good neighbors? Remember when we had welcome baskets for new neighbors? Even though we can’t speak the various foreign languages in our community, here is an international language. It is a simple smile and a nod!
Try it; it will bring a smile and a new friend. It becomes contagious, and that is what makes a community successful.
See Mayor Gilbert’s personal blog at www.MayorLarryGilbert.com.