On January 20 a new community group called Welcoming Maine launched its first Welcoming Maine Dinner at St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston. Native Mainers and New Mainers gathered for a multi-ethnic meal and a film screening on the week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
For many guests, this event sparked their first true interaction with a neighbor from a different culture.
Turnout greatly exceeded predicted numbers, with over 60 people filling the venue. Many important figures from both communities were present, as well as everyday Lewiston residents. Guests included Mayor Bob MacDonald (City of Lewiston), former mayor Larry Gilbert (City of Lewiston), Executive Director Abdifatah Ahmed (Atlantic Global Aid), Monsignor Marc Caron (Princes of Peace Catholic Church), Executive Director Fatuma Hussein (United Somali Women of Maine), City Administrator Ed Barrett (City of Lewiston), Case Manager Qamar Bashir (Catholic Charities Maine), Superintendent Bill Webster (Lewiston Public Schools), business owner Mohamed Mohamed (Three One Cafe) and business owners Jimmy and Linda Simones (Simones Restaurant).
“You can’t judge a book by its cover!” said Hibo Omer, a Welcoming Maine committee member, to City Council member Craig Saddlemire when they learned of their common experience as graduate students.
Guests were assigned to mixed-group tables where they enjoyed a full Somali meal cooked by Fowsia Musse and engaged in facilitated dialogue. Sarah Davis, Welcoming Maine facilitator and Bates alumna, served as Master of Ceremonies.
During the opening address, Welcoming Maine committee member Melissa Marcinuk told a story of her first real interaction with a new Mainer mother, as well as her reaction to the tales of desperation and subjugation that the mother experienced in the neighborhoods of Lewiston: “That’s not my America; that’s not my Maine,” Marcinuk stated.
Omer urged the audience to tear down the walls that both communities construct to “protect themselves from the unknown.” She said, “By talking to each other, these imaginary walls can be torn apart.”
Omer concluded the address with a quotation from Martin Luther King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
Following the opening address, former mayor Larry Gilbert read the Welcoming Proclamation he issued while in office in December, stating: “The City of Lewiston is committed to continue building a neighborly and welcoming atmosphere within this community where all are welcomed, accepted and appreciated.”
By the end of the night, 41 endorsement signatures were collected, including those of Mayor Bob Macdonald and Superintendent Bill Webster.
The film “Welcome to Shelbyville” (2010) drew gasps, laughter, murmurs and even some tears from the audience who felt the story really hit home. It tells of a small Tennessee town striving, like Lewiston, to achieve successful integration amidst social tensions.
The event concluded with a series of impromptu speeches given by participants. Abdifatah Ahmed, executive director of Atlantic Global Aid, spoke of his trying experience as a pharmacist. One customer admitted boldly to Ahmed, “I’m afraid of you because of your skin color.” Ahmed responded, “I know it’s black, but why are you afraid?”
The customer explained the fear of the unknown, that he’d never interacted with a black person before.
Mayor Bob Macdonald shared a story of his first friendship with a Somali, urging Lewiston residents to work toward peaceful assimilation by befriending fellow residents across ethnic lines. Several speeches highlighted the notion that kindness goes a long way—even a simple smile can begin to melt the ice.
Davis shared a story of her own migration from Virginia to Maine, her initial feelings of isolation and her acceptance into the hearts of “five Somali moms,” all seated in the audience.
At the conclusion of the dinner, Welcoming Maine committee members received dozens of heartfelt thanks from departing guests, New Mainers and native Mainers alike.
Mayor Macdonald shook Davis’s hand in his two hands on his way out the door and expressed his gratitude for the eye-opening experience. “Thank you for this opportunity,” Macdonald said on his way out the door. “I’m glad I came.”
Another guest, Mohamed Hassan, pulled Davis aside to express the event’s personal impact. “I’ve been here many years,” he explained, “and I’ve never been to an event as inspiring as this. Thank you.”
Omer explained that the purpose of the event was achieved. “My goal before the dinner was that it would create a chain reaction of good spirit and better understanding among community members. The Welcoming Maine goal was met because the Maine that we all love was evident that evening in the way people were just having fun with one another. My hope is that those people who participated will take this message of commonality to their friends and family.
In following days and weeks, the Welcoming Maine Dinner generated enormous positive response and wide ripple effects. The following day Mayor Macdonald visited Three One Cafe, a Somali restaurant on Lisbon Street, where he enjoyed Somali food alongside diverse patrons.
Welcoming Maine plans to hold more dinners in coming months, uniting residents from different corners for shared food and festivities. Welcoming Maine is a committee of the New Mainers Community Collaborative dedicated to improving social integration among Maine residents. Their group is connected to Welcoming America, a collaborative of statewide campaigns formed to promote common respect among community members across the nation.
For more information or to support the Welcoming Maine initiative, contact Sarah Davis at email@example.com or visit welcomingamerica.org.