Approximately 6,000 of Lewiston’s 36,000 residents are from Somalia or other African countries. The story of their journey to Maine and lives here are at the heart of “Home Now: How 6,000 Refugees Transformed an American Town,” a finalist for the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance award for nonfiction in 2020.

Author Cynthia Anderson, a Maine native and now part-time resident, provides a thoughtful and richly textured account of the refugees who began arriving in Lewiston in 2002, and how they are making Maine home.

“Home Now” has three narrative threads: the experiences of five new Mainers; the positive influence refugees are having on Lewiston and Maine; and Anderson and her mother’s own rediscovery of Maine as their home.

Anderson follows the five new Mainers from spring 2016 to spring 2019. When we first meet Nasafari, she is a Lewiston High School student juggling work while preparing for the SATs and deciding where she will attend college. When we meet Fatuma, she is a pregnant working mother who is rushing from Lewiston to Portland to be with a woman who has a court hearing seeking protection from abuse. She is a leader in the immigrant support community.

We meet Carrys as a high school student and follow him to college at University of Southern Maine and to Boston for an internship with an engineering firm. Jamilo is a single mother who lives in Lewiston, briefly moves to Providence and returns home to Portland to be with her life partner. Finally, there is Abdikadir, a community leader who was selected to the “40 under 40” list by the Lewiston-Auburn Chamber of Commerce. A picture of him with his wife, Ikran, is one of several remarkable photographs in the book.

Anderson follows their interactions with family, work, community and Maine winters. Their experiences are not all positive. At times, they are subject to vile racism and anti-Muslim words and actions from other residents of Lewiston. She shows how government officials, especially President Trump, have made them, as Muslims, feel unwelcome by saying they are risks to national security and implementing racist and xenophobic policies.

Most community members in Lewiston and throughout the state, however, have welcomed the refugees and been supportive – rallying with them in response to racist or anti-Muslim comments.

Many of the refugees had long journeys to Maine, fleeing war-torn countries where they experienced violence, imprisonment and other trauma. Anderson shows how, despite the hostility from some, the refugee community in Lewiston is supportive and engaged – demonstrating agency, resiliency and initiative, not dependency or passivity. It’s a community that values family, education and a sense of home.

Providing a backdrop to the refugees’ experience, Anderson chronicles Lewiston’s economic decline, beginning in the 1960s, and describes the feel of the failing downtown when the first Somali refugees arrived around 2001. They have helped rejuvenate the area by opening businesses, launching civic organizations and being active members of the community.

Anderson makes parallels to the French Canadians who immigrated to Maine beginning in the 1850s. These 19th century newcomers were not welcomed in Lewiston and were criticized by nativists for not speaking the language, not assimilating, having too many children, and for supposedly being lazy and part of a Catholic conspiracy led by the Pope.

The African refugees in Lewiston faced similar challenges, and others. Employment opportunities were scarce in Lewiston at the start of the 21st century, which was not the case in the 1850s. Yet in spite of all this adversity, African refugees continue to find home in Lewiston. The youngest refugees to arrive in 2001 are now college-age, and the refugee community continues to bring a youthful energy to Maine, the state with the oldest average age in the country.

Throughout the book, Anderson weaves in her own family’s Maine story, about many of her relatives who moved out of the state and her mother’s poignant return toward the very end of her life. But mostly, “Home Now” is an engaging and accessible account of the experience, fortitude and positive impact of African refugees in Lewiston.

Dave Canarie is an attorney from South Portland and adjunct faculty member at University of Southern Maine.

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