LEWISTON – Fatuma Hussein of Auburn stood and looked directly at the U.S. ambassador to her home country of Somalia.

“Many of us are engaged at the ground level to do a lot of work to ensure that the Somali community exists and that it contributes what it can to the common good of our communities,” she told him. “Yet a lot of times there is very targeted anti-immigrant language that is targeted at us. … We are suspected all the time of everything bad.”

Hussein wanted to know, what could happen to change that?

Appointed in 2016 by President Obama, Stephen Schwartz is the first U.S. ambassador to Somalia in a quarter century. He was particpating in a community forum at the Lewiston Public Library as part of a visit to Somalian communities in Maine and Massachusetts this week. More than 50 people — immigrants, representatives from Maine Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, Lewiston officials — had gathered to hear him. “My visit here, it’s improtant to me,” Schwartz said to Hussein. “I’m glad you find it useful. What I think is really important is the number of local officials, political officials, judicial officials and law enforcement officials in this room right now. … I’m not saying there are not wider issues at play, and what you described exists. But I think in this community, it certainly looks to me like you’ve got this institutional support to try to make it work.”

As ambassador, Schwartz has also visited diaspora communities in Minnesota and Ohio. More than 1,600 Somalian refugees have been resettled in Maine since 2002. During the event, he also fielded questions about American foreign policy in Africa and President Trump’s executive order that would impose a 90-day ban on travelers from six Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia.

The ambassador seemed as uncertain about the future of Trump’s executive orders as his audience.

“Ultimately will they go into force?” he said. “I can’t say. And I’ll admit to having really no effective role in shaping whether we have or done have these executive orders.”

Schwartz said he is trying to understand what could be done to exempt Somalia from the list of banned countries. For example, the United States does not accept Somalian passports, and he said he is trying to learn whether a more credible form of identification is needed. He also noted Somalia has recently agreed to accept natives deported from the United States, which he said signals a willingness to collaborate on immigration issues.

Newly elected Somalian President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed has said he will work to have the East African nation removed from the list of countries whose citizens would be banned by the Trump administration, according to a report from Voice of America, an international broadcaster funded by the U.S. government.

“I’m pretty sure if it’s within their ability to do so, the Somali government will try to comply,” Schwartz said.

“Overtime, we will need to see how it plays out,” the ambassador added. “Not a great answer, I’m sorry. But I’m a little bit in the dark as well.”

In an interview with the Portland Press Herald after the event, Schwartz said he wants to learn more about how Trump’s proposed ban would impact Somalians in their home country and in the United States.

“The executive orders have not taken effect,” he said. “I will admit I need to research more this concern about family reunification. … I’m certainly sympathetic to the families, of course.”

The forum was the second of two public events during the amassador’s trip to New England.

Schwartz visited Deering High School in Portland on Wednesday for an open question-and-answer session with students and a private gathering of Somalian community leaders. On Thursday morning, he took a walking tour of Lewiston and visited Somali-owned businesses in the city. He planned to travel to Boston later in the day.

“It really informs me in my job as the first U.S. ambassador to Somalia in 25 years,” he said.

This story will be updated.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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