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As US braces for refugees, one Maine town offers lesson of inclusion

At a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric is on the rise, the town of Lewiston, Maine shows how the struggle of integrating migrant communities can be overcome.

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Austin Wing (l.) and Abdi Shariff check out pictures on Shariff's phone at Lewiston High School in Lewiston, Maine, on Dec. 14. In Lewiston, white residents now see the black newcomers want the same things they do – a safe place to raise a family, good schools, freedom and jobs, said Abdi Said, a refugee who was originally placed in San Jose, Calif., before he moved to Lewiston.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo/File

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As the United States prepares to take in thousands of refugees from Syria in the months and years ahead, one New England town is drawing attention as a model for integrating migrant communities.

Fifteen years ago, Lewiston, Maine, became a prime destination for a wave of Somali immigrants who failed to find housing through a resettlement program established in nearby Portland, the state’s largest city. At first, it was a struggle: local schools wrestled with a sudden influx of students who spoke no English, and white supremacist groups rallied against the newcomers’ arrival.

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But today, the former mill town of about 36,500 is home to an African community of 5,000 – and their presence can be felt throughout the city in mosques, shops, restaurants, and the local champion high-school soccer team that features players from Somalia and other African countries.

The key, some immigrants say, is earning their neighbors’ respect.

“When Somalis came in, Lewiston people, Maine people, they think we need welfare, but we don't need welfare,” said Shukri Abasheikh, who owns a general store that caters to the African community. “We need jobs. We need peace. We need education.”

At a time when nationwide anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise – a result of concerns over recruitment by Islamic extremists – Lewiston stands as both a standard of success, and as a case study for the issues that come with what scholars call “rapid ethnic diversification.”

When residents there worried about losing jobs to Somali migrants, for instance, city officials and advocates stepped in to build ties between neighbors and curb misconceptions. As Sarah Miller Llana reported for The Monitor in 2003:

City administrators, social workers, and volunteers spearheaded efforts to stymie misunderstandings. Stopping rumors – that all Somalis get free cars, or that Somalis keep chickens in their cupboards – was a priority, says Cheryl Hamilton of the Portland-Lewiston Refugee Collaborative. Fact and myth pages were run in the local paper and hung at local hospitals. …

Under the leadership of assistant city administrator Phil Nadeau, forums were held for residents to air concerns. Local college students were recruited to teach English. Job-skills workshops were funded.

By the time the white-supremacist rally convened … thousands counterrallied in support of diversity. "That was really a turning point, to see that people were in favor of us being here," says Said Mohamud, who relocated to Maine last fall with his wife and seven children.

The migrant community, too, has endeavored to prove they want the same things as their white neighbors: a place to raise a family, good schools, decent jobs, and freedom, says Abdi Said, a refugee who was first resettled in San Jose, Calif., before he moved to Lewiston.

“We are working hard, and we're going to school and everything – like regular American people,” Mr. Said told the Associated Press. “They see that we are not different.”

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Today, Lewiston’s Somalis run their own businesses or work for local employers, including Maine’s iconic outdoor retailer, L.L. Bean. And while refugees and asylum seekers are expected account for about half of the city's general assistance spending in the year ahead, overall spending remains unchanged since 1990, Mr. Nadeau told AP.

The town’s success at assimilating migrants is probably most apparent at Lewiston High School, where the championship-winning team included players from Somalia as well as Kenya and Congo. The players avoid talking about politics or immigration – but the common goal of winning games has brought the team together, says Abdi Shariff, a co-captain who lived in a Kenyan refugee camp before moving with his family to Louisville, Ky., and then Lewiston.

"It just shows that people from different races, different cultures, can all work together and accomplish a goal if they want to,” he told AP.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.