I met Fatuma when she came to my school to speak on a immigration panel hosted by UMF’s International and Global Studies Program. She was one of four women to share what they do for the immigrant population in Maine. She was such a striking speaker I knew I had to introduce myself in hopes of interviewing her for this project. After we talked I was very excited that she agreed to give me about an hour of her time and help me to find another interviewee because she works with a huge number of immigrants in the Lewiston area.
“My name is Fatuma Hussein. I am an immigrant from Somalia. Somalia went into war late 1990, early 1991. It was a civil war, meaning that there were major clans that were fighting each other over power and oppression and so much more. I was a child; but as any other country that’s at war, people flee violence and are forced out of their countries and their homes. And we’re not different, so we were displaced because of war.”
When Fatuma first came to the United States in 1993, she was settled in Atlanta, Georgia. She lived there for several years, but was not content with the high crime rates and congested feel of the big city. She was told about Maine being a great place to live from another Somali refugee and even though she was pregnant, she went the next day to Boston. She told me what it was like for her to discover Maine and arrive in the apartment of a host that first night in Portland.
“I think coming to the state of Maine, I mean, most refugees are resettled in urban cities. They are resettled in bigger cities. They are resettled in places where there is a lot of violence, a lot of high crime rate, very expensive. Just all kinds of crazy things you are trying to flee from. You know, you are running away from all this stuff and often the way the refugee resettlement program works you’ve gone through several agencies in many of the states and they work hard and I am sure they have so many different considerations when they’re resettling families. But what happens is a lot of times most families don’t really have a say or control over where they are going to live. But then once they are resettled you come to understand this is not a good fit, for whatever reason, right? And most refugees want to have a smaller city. A place where it’s calm, it’s safe, you know, you’re not worried about guns and drugs and crime rates and all of that. So I think what really struck me was how simple and calm and safe and welcoming the state of Maine is.
When we came to this little tiny apartment and I remember that night we had about eleven people, women, children, and men, who came and congregated in this. We were all coming from different states, mostly Atlanta and Georgia. We didn’t know each other; some of us knew each other but some of us didn’t know each other, but for some reason the common thread that we had is we were all in search of safe place, safer states, simple lives. Closer to what we had back in our home.”
She met several Somali families in Portland. The city had become quite congested and they were having a very difficult time finding for housing of those immigrants. The families had been staying in the shelter for several months because they wanted to stay in Portland, but there was no housing. Portland had even reached out to Lewiston to take on some of the refugees but at the time the city refused. There were about four families that had moved on to Lewiston and Fatuma and the group she had traveled with asked to be connected to the Somali families staying in Lewiston. She describes that experience.
“I remember the drive from Portland to Lewiston, was obviously such a long drive, was deserted. I mean, like all you see is trees and nothing more. Remember we came from Atlanta so we’re used to these big skyscrapers just buildings and city life. So here all you see is that. So it snowed and now the sun was shining. I mean, I’ll never forget that image in my head; the sun is shining, the snow is so white, it is such a beautiful and peaceful place. We were just driving and looking at this place doesn’t have a lot of people it has more trees and more land and has more you know.
And so we drove to Lewiston and we came to Hillview, which is a Lewiston Housing Authority property a big housing complex where most refugees live. It’s a really nicely well maintained and we came in, again randomly, and they welcomed us, and gave us tea and sambusa. There were three only three families next to each other. We came in and we said hi to them and they said, ‘You need to tell those people to come here this place is safe. The fears that they have is not true. It doesn’t exist. Tell them to come and visit Lewiston. Tell them to come and be our neighbors.’
So there were those four families and so we went back to shelter and we said, ‘You crazy people, you need to move to Lewiston because Portland may not necessarily be a good place for you.’ So that I think started convincing them. I went back to Atlanta and moved a month later and more than fifty families had already moved. And people were lo longer stopping at Portland shelter services they were actually coming straight to Lewiston.”
Fatuma moved to Lewiston in 2001, which means she was in the first wave of immigrants to move to the area. She was present through all the ups and downs between the old Mainers and the New Mainers. When I asked her the role the community has played in her life she said both good and bad. She explained that often immigrants and especially refugees have experienced trauma and hardships and they are looking for simple and safe lives away from crime and persecution. When they enter communities, often that host community does not know who it is that is moving to their city and for that reason they are unprepared. These two uncertain groups are thrown together and forced to adapt the best they can, but often myths and fear can run rampant in the immigrant population and host community alike. Fatuma shares a bit of Lewiston’s experience.
“I think what happened was we had to both educate ourselves, meaning the host community and the resettled community. We had to accept change, we had to really open our eyes and our ears and say, ‘You know what, at the end of the day we are one community and nobody is moving. The sooner we get our acts together, the sooner we can get along.’ And that came with a lot of pain. We had people coming in. We had people writing to the mayor of Lewiston saying, ‘We don’t know who these people are.’ We had a lot of pushback. We had a big townhall meeting with officials from the state, the city government, and community members, that didn’t go well. We had a letter coming to us from the mayor of Lewiston saying we shouldn’t move to Lewiston, you know, tell the Somalis not to move because we are ‘maxing out the resources of the city’. We then had the KKK trying to say, ‘Ok, we are going to eradicate Somalis from Lewiston because they don’t belong there.’ We had all of this and in the midst of all of this, somehow we had children who are going to school and supposedly are supposed to get an education, a fair education, a quality education when we’ve got all of this underlying issues.
I think the Many and One Rally, which many of us were a part of, was a turning point. It was a turning point where many Mainers rejected the notion of one of us being eradicated and taken out of the city because of who they are. I think that then laid the foundation for what you see today. The idea that from a very painful past we will together move forward, together work together, and together really build a community that was tolerant of anybody regardless of their cultural background, religious background, skin color, whoever they were, age, whoever they were. It was, not that we don’t have issues, but boy have we come a long way.”
Fatuma was not one to idly sit by when her community was hurting though. She was given the opportunity to help a gentleman do a presentation for the Maine State Refugee Council and was offered a job afterward. She turned that down but gained a contact, Jane, that was going to help make her dream a reality.
“And Jane said, ‘Ok, Fatuma’ and we were having tea and sambusa and she said, ‘Ok, Fatuma. If you were to close your eyes and you had a dream, what would be your dream?’ And I said, ‘Oh, a women’s center.’ Just this little…so she scribbles on a piece of paper and she says, ‘Here’s your dream. I am going to get you funders. You, go write a proposal.’ So I wrote a proposal with all my not good English. I just wrote something, I don’t know what I wrote but I do have the original proposal. And we met and I presented and right there and then we secured $40,000 from the department of health and human services, a fiscal agent, and a space. And then it dawned to me oh, that’s just me I don’t have the community, the people I am supposed to serve. They have no idea about this whole thing.
So for the next eight or nine months we will embark on a journey of: educating people, bringing people, presenting the idea, having a small group of five women coming up with the name, the vision, the mission, and everything, bumping heads into another group that says oh we are also a women’s center, the state holding our funds, just going back and forth on all the politic that that involves. But on August 2, 2002, our offices were opened with the blessings of ladies. You can’t imagine, we had the first meeting when I proposed the idea about thirty-five women showed up and five of us were the people sort of who were told go do all the work and then when we did our second meeting I think it was May 11 or May something of 2002 more than a hundred women showed up to the multicultural center here. Multipurpose center here in Lewiston.”
Her center over the years morphed into a more widely serving organization for the betterment of the immigrants in the Lewiston area and beyond. It is called the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine. When I was there before my interview with her the place was incredibly busy. There was at least two presentations and trainings going on, there was a new intern, it was a donation day for them, and there were even local college students volunteering over their spring break. I could tell from this was a place that makes a true impact on the community. I asked Fatuma what some of her hopes were for the IRCOM and the community as a whole and she told me:
“My, my hope and my dream is that our state, our systems, our services, our stores, our everything should be accessible. It is time for the state of Maine and for all of us to recognize that all people from all the world, all over, all walks of life, from all backgrounds and for some people to be here and for some people to always try to strive to be an equal partner, that’s not acceptable. And what that emphasizes on and validates is that idea that our future generation are not going to be equal either. My hope is that people recognize that we’ve got all people and that we need to be fair and that we need to have accessible services.”
Fatuma if you cannot tell by now is an incredibly passionate woman with strong beliefs. I asked if there was anything else she wanted to share and she felt it was important to share this:
“What I have a hard time with is most Americans are very quiet people. So when you talk to people individually they will say, ‘I have a problem with this and I have a problem with that and I can’t stand the administration and the government is not doing the right thing.’ Why not put that into action? Why not connect that to real action and real change? Why do we have to be quiet? Why do we have to be the solemn majority? We’re not headed to the right place. You know that. I know that. Many of us know that. We’ve got government officials whether it is at the federal level, state level, city/local level who on this day, where we are, are anti-immigrant, who are creating unnecessary fear for people, who are using that fear to divide communities. They are using that fear to attack and target particular populations and people are not saying much about that. People are not saying much about that, so where are those people? Where are the people who say, ‘You know what, Fatuma, I appreciate you. Thank you for being in my community. I am so sorry about what happened on the news,’? That message and that information doesn’t get to the people who are creating problems. As long as we are not putting efforts to combat that, we are participating in the same effort that they’re doing. And people have to speak up and people have to…cause in reality you’re not going to see a hundred Iraqi women at the state house; you’re not going to see that. You are not going to see a bunch of Somali women saying, ‘We don’t agree with the governor.’ You’re not going to see that. What you’re gonna see is a lot of white people who can come and be the forefront of that fight. We need that and that momentum has to stay steady. Otherwise we jeopardize this. The lack of action, the lack of not speaking up, the lack of not doing things because people are very reserved and everybody doesn’t want to risk, that enables the people who are creating fear. It enables people who are louder than us. It enables their fear to come into our homes, whether it is through mailings, through voicemails, through television it comes into our homes. And that divides us wider and more and more. And then what? Who are we then? Who are we? We talk about, ‘Oh, we have progressed and we have these rights and this is the progress that we’ve made.’ Everything that’s happening today jeopardizes that and so we need to protect the progress that we have made so far and we have to acknowledge that all of us have to do something. So I have a problem with people being quiet and I would hope that people can speak up. I would hope that people can do much more. I would hope people would not be comfortable when their neighbors are being attacked, they would not be comfortable when school children, who are very young, are being targeted.”
I am so glad to have met Fatuma. I learned so much about the history of the African migration that has taken place in Lewiston and some of the needs there. She had a lot to say that I was not able to share above and I recommend listening to the full interview; you can also find the full transcript here. I would also encourage people to look into the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine to find out what they are doing and how you could become involved.