SCARBOROUGH — In 2000, I started Maine Warmers, a small, Internet-based maker of heating pads and ice packs, and I needed someone to hand-cut fabrics.

A Somali woman in Lewiston was eager to help. She had six children, and all but her youngest were enrolled in the public school system.

She lived on what was then a notorious street in Lewiston, not because she wanted to but because that was all she could afford. The first few times I took fabric to her apartment, I was quite nervous about going there.

I walked up the three flights to her apartment, where I was shocked that there was not one piece of furniture. We spoke while an interpreter, hired by the city of Lewiston, translated.

The woman spread a blanket on the floor and laid the fabric on it. On our knees, we went over the cutting process. She was very attentive and wanted to do the job correctly – and for the next two years, she did.

Within a week after that first meeting, a woman in my church donated a solid wooden table and chair set so that the Somali woman would have a surface on which to work. Over the next two years her English improved, and she gradually added furniture to her home.


The makeup of the neighborhood slowly changed as other Somali people moved in.

They dressed well, took care of their children, taught them manners and didn’t drink or sell drugs. They worked as soon as they could land jobs, and I no longer had any trepidation about going to that street.

The Somali woman who cut fabric for the products wanted to sew them, too, and I found a donated, used home sewing machine for her. But she needed an industrial sewing machine and other equipment.

Even if I had had the resources to buy one to give her, I didn’t have the expertise to show her how to operate it. I tried several times to contact people in a variety of organizations within the city who might help but came up empty. Finally, and sadly, I had to move on.

The people I found next were sewing contractors from Cambodia who had, a few decades before, fled from another war-torn country. They are highly skilled, hardworking people who have been successful in managing businesses and are good citizens of Maine.

The people who sew for my company also do the highest quality of work, and they make me proud to see “Made in Maine” tags on all of Maine Warmers’ products.


The Somali woman’s face and those of her children pop into my mind whenever I read about the ongoing battle to cut off state aid to asylum seekers. I wonder what would have happened to her and her family back then if General Assistance had left them unable to pay for food and housing until they could establish themselves.

Living in a country far from their families, they would not have the resources to relocate to another state. The faces of asylum seekers are the same as other human beings, and their hearts are filled with hope for a better future.

Ongoing discussions in this newspaper point to the complexity of the process immigrants go through to enter this country. I think the majority of refugees and asylum seekers endure this process in order to enjoy life and the “American experience” and are not looking for long-term, meager handouts from the state or municipalities.

Maine’s population is growing older, and Maine can benefit from an influx of younger, hardworking folks who have the energy to create new businesses and fill necessary and important jobs. We should spend our energies on helping asylum seekers instead of trying to pull the rug of basic human needs out from under them.

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