Maine lost a leader this week. Alain Jean Claude Nahimana, 49, died Sunday from complications of diabetes.

A refugee from Burundi, he had lived in the state for only a decade. But in that short time he was able to build bridges between his fellow immigrants and the larger community in profound and lasting ways.

Alain Nahimana Press Herald file photo

Starting with his work with the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition and as president of the Burundi Community Association, and later by co-founding the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, Nahimana worked to break down cultural barriers, not only between immigrants and native-born Mainers, but also between the many different immigrant groups that too often get lumped together as a monolithic “immigrant community.”

It’s hard, painstaking work that doesn’t pay off overnight. But Nahimana’s patience, clear vision and commitment to progress have forged partnerships that we hope will keep yielding results even without him there to guide them.

His transition from traditional civil rights advocacy to the founding of the Immigrant Welcome Center is telling.

As important as it is to work for equal rights and justice, Nahimana and others could see that there were other pressing needs for all the communities to which he belonged.

He recognized that there were obstacles that kept new Mainers from getting meaningful jobs, standing in the way of their full integration into the larger community. Meanwhile, the biggest challenge for the state’s business was a worker shortage that stifled economic growth.

Nahimana co-founded the welcome center, which, among other things, partnered with local businesses to get newcomers over the language barrier that prevented many of them from getting the kinds of jobs they were capable of filling.

By helping immigrants over this hurdle, the organization was providing the local economy what it needed most – reinforcements for a shrinking workforce.

Maine’s economic issues are complicated, but in just the past few months the challenges we face have gotten much tougher.

A global pandemic has come to Maine, and black and brown people, including African immigrants like Nahimana, have been disproportionately affected. The pandemic has unleashed an economic crisis that has put more than 100,000 Mainers out of work, disproportionately affecting newcomers who work in low-wage, service-sector jobs.

And over the last week the streets have been filled with protesters in cities across the country – including in Nahimana’s adopted home of Portland – calling for an end to sanctioned police violence against people of color, which in Maine includes much of the immigrant community to which so much of his life’s work was devoted.

We need leaders who can reach across the divide and build trust on both sides. We need people who can think creatively in a crisis.

Nahimana was that kind of leader. The path forward will be harder without him.

 


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