March 25, 2013

Immigrants find havens – in Portland suburbs

In Westbrook, the trend is especially evident, changing the fabric of the former mill town.

By Leslie Bridgers
Staff Writer

WESTBROOK — Tucked in the corner of a hilly neighborhood between downtown and the Stroudwater River is a compound of duplexes – identical aside from the color of the siding and the size of the bicycles on the stoops – where hijabs are almost as popular as jeans.

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Ahmed, 14, Sandra, 17, and Mohammed Banijameel, 12, sit in their Westbrook home. The Banijameel family, originally from Iraq, moved to Westbrook after living in Portland.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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The scent of spices permeates the apartments, and carvings of quotes from the Quran hang on the walls in the well-kept complex, where more than 200 Arabic-speaking residents have relocated since 2010.

"It's safe. Nice people here. Nice place," said Kosay Alwan, as two of his children, twigs in hand, chased each other on the weather-beaten grass outside their home at Westbrook Pointe.

Portland has long been a place where immigrants have resettled, but in recent years a rising numbers of new Americans have made their homes in its suburbs. School district data show there's been an increase in non-English-speaking students everywhere from Gorham to Cape Elizabeth, but nowhere has the trend been more apparent than Westbrook.

The growing population of people from the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world is changing the fabric of the former mill town. There's a new ethnic market off Main Street and school menu items are marked halal to accommodate the dietary needs of the many Muslim students.

Adult English classes at the community center are filling up, and nearly half of the households that applied for general assistance from the city last month identified themselves as immigrant or refugee.

But the change is most evident in the schools' English-language-learners program, which has grown almost tenfold since 2005, when it had 27 students. This year, there are 265.

Meanwhile, the number of non-English-speaking students in Portland has grown more slowly, and even leveled off in the last two to three years. Many of the immigrants who moved to Westbrook came to Portland first.


Many of the residents said they heard about housing opportunities in Westbrook by word of mouth, from family or a friend. Others said they ended up in the city by chance; it was the first place a subsidized apartment opened up.

For many, it's the third or fourth stop since they fled from their home country out of fear for their lives. They came by way of Burundi, Egypt, Tennessee, Texas -- and from Forest Avenue and Auburn Street in Portland.

Alwan said he fled to Turkey in 2008 to go "anyplace, just to leave Iraq." Through the United Nations, he was placed in Portland, where he met an interpreter who told him about Westbrook Pointe.

He likes the quiet and the quality of the schools.

Those are often among the reasons immigrants -- or anyone -- move to the suburbs, said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow from the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. For people who are new to the country, affordable housing and access to public transportation make certain towns and cities more attractive, she said. Westbrook, a city of 18,000 with a poverty level above the state average, has both.

If someplace gets a good reputation within an established immigrant group in the area, Singer said, an influx of new residents can come quickly. "Once a social network forms, a lot of information is passed," she said.

Often, Singer said, it comes down to one apartment building getting good recommendations -- just what happened with the Arabic community at Westbrook Pointe and, before that, with African refugees at an Avesta Housing complex on the other side of the Presumpscot River.

Called Steeple Square, the three-story homes with shutters on the windows and porches in front take up most of Walker and Webb streets. The first African family moved there in May 2009, said Mindy Woerter, spokeswoman for Avesta. Now, 25 of the 73 units are rented by families from Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo, Sudan, Angola and Togo, she said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Fatimah Al Shuwaili, 8, and several of her classmates at Saccarappa Elementary School write in Arabic on a classroom white board. Saccarappa has the largest English-language program of Westbrook’s three elementary schools.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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The Tigris Market on Bridge Street in Westbrook, which is owned by Jabbar Jabbar's brother, sells Middle Eastern food and other goods to the city’s immigrant community.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer


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