By Sarah Davis
Forty-eight diverse stakeholders gathered on August 30 for an event titled, “Future at Stake: Addressing Youth Integration in L/A.” The evening was groundbreaking because of the diversity of its high-profile participants, who intermingled during a film screening, a facilitated dialogue and a traditional Somali meal.
This event was the second dinner in a series organized by Welcoming Maine, a community group that works to improve social integration between new and native Mainers through interactive events.
Invited guests included representatives from Lewiston and Auburn’s police, fire and school departments, Juvenile Community Corrections, Lewiston Housing Authority, Central Maine Medical Center, Saint Mary’s Health System, Catholic Charities Refugee & Immigration Services, New Beginnings, College 4 ME Androscoggin, Tree Street Youth, Big Brothers Big Sisters, United Somali Women of Maine, Somali community elders and new Mainer youth. Event organizers were pleased by the high turn out.
The evening began with a showing of the film “Not in Our Town: Light in the Darkness,” which tells the story of Marcelo Lucero’s racially based murder in Patchogue, N.Y. The themes of rising ethnic tensions and hate-crime prevention resonated strongly with many of the attendees, who work to address similar situations in their daily lives.
“It wasn’t until dinner was served that the real action began,” said one of the Welcoming Maine organizers. At intermixed dinner tables, guests shared their reactions to the film. Many people said they felt most impacted by “the invitation to start conversations with people who are different from me.” For some, this marked a rare moment of cross-cultural interaction.
Guests reported that the event changed their thinking about the challenges newcomers experience when coming and living here. It sparked an understanding of how people in our community play an important role in the integration process. Guests were particularly intrigued by the personal stories of three Somali women who shared their experiences as young newcomers and later as mothers.
Hibo Omer told the story of her six-year-old daughter who was shoved on the playground. “I hate you,” said the young offender, referring to her ethnic difference. As a mother, Hibo was shocked that such a small child could already be spouting racial animosity.
A key line from the film reminded guests: “Apples don’t fall from pear trees.” Parents and community leaders have a responsibility to cultivate positive values in our young people.
Qamar Bashir explained that the animosity goes both ways. Violence in Lewiston-Auburn is not only directed toward Somalis but among many different groups. It is the responsibility of all community members to address tension and hostility.
Fowsia Musse spoke of the internal identity challenges she faces as a new Mainer. “When you’re in your home country, you know the customs, you know the people, you know the language,” she said. “You’re a whole person. Coming to a new country makes you feel fragmented, and you have to face yourself to figure out who you really are.”
Fowsia expressed how important it is to move beyond the fear of approaching a person from another culture and interact across the cultural gap.
Service providers were profoundly impacted by the opportunity to hear these real-life stories. “There is so much work to do,” said one guest. Another guest emphasized how important it is for every community to consider these issues: “It’s never too early or too much.”
Participants appreciated the sense of community collaboration and camaraderie generated by the Welcoming Maine Dinner. Said one guest, “This event reinforced my drive to deal with community issues.” A representative from a service agency said the most important thing he learned was “how other organizations are willing to be part of this movement.” Another guest emphasized, “We need to stand together in order to achieve a strong community.”
In coming months, Welcoming Maine plans to hold additional community gatherings as they strive toward their slogan: “Building bridges, uniting neighbors.”
Welcoming Maine was founded in March 2011 as a committee of the New Mainers Community Collaborative. They are part of a growing collaboration called Welcoming America, uniting 20-plus statewide initiatives in the goal of two-way integration between new and native-born Americans.
In addition to events, Welcoming Maine members point to Lewiston’s Welcoming Proclamation as a key achievement. Issued by former mayor Larry Gilbert in December 2011, it states: “The City of Lewiston is committed to continue building a neighborly and welcoming atmosphere within this community where all are welcomed, accepted and appreciated.”
Since then, the proclamation has been endorsed by over 60 noteworthy representatives, including city officials, business owners and religious leaders.
For more information or to support the Welcoming Maine initiative, contact Sarah Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit welcomingamerica.org.