These were the playground taunts that no child should have to endure.

Comments, slurs and methods of exclusion that make your heart sink. I witnessed this firsthand in the classrooms and playgrounds of my hometown of Lewiston, Maine.

As a white native raised in Lewiston between 2006 and 2016, I grew up alongside the first generation of Somali American students in the city. I saw how quickly parental bigotry could infiltrate young minds, propagating social divides across generations.

I also experienced the societal renaissance that newcomers bring. Despite the thriving nature of the immigrant community in Lewiston, I learned that true integration takes place in two directions and requires a mutual effort from both newcomers and existing communities.

The polarized reality of Lewiston serves as a microcosm of the struggle playing out in other resettlement communities – in Maine and well beyond.

Economically, the positive impact of immigrants is undeniable. Affordable housing and plentiful job opportunities have drawn thousands of people to our state. Immigrants have reversed population decline, reopened closed businesses and supplied a younger workforce to a population looking to retire.


These numbers tell a story of transformation. Immigrants now own 2,500 small businesses in Maine; contributed to 20% of state population growth in the past decade; comprised 4% of the state’s labor force in 2018; paid $609.3 million in taxes; and held $1.5 billion in spending power in 2021. It is clear that the Maine immigrant community is expanding the tax base, the state’s workforce, fueling economic demand, spending and acting as a lifeline to small businesses.

However, resentment has festered in some quarters of the white working class witnessing this growth.

Despite refugees and natives receiving general assistance funding evenly, myths have spread throughout the existing community about newcomers reaping undeserved benefits or “free rides” funded by taxpayer dollars.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric peaked when political figures such as former President Donald Trump and former Gov. Paul LePage gave speeches regarding the Somali community in Maine, citing misinformation about an increase in crime rates, calling asylum seekers “the biggest problem in our state” and urging Somali migrants to stop coming to the city, suggesting it was overburdened.

These positions expose a cognitive dissonance.

Lewiston is a city built by successive waves of migration, from the French Canadians to the Irish, Greek, Lithuanian and Somali immigrants. Despite this clear history of an economy built by immigration, fears of cultural displacement overshadow our shared history of hardship and resilience, resulting in divisions.


An “America First” message of exclusion has resonated with those who see refugees as threats rather than assets. This climate of fear, hostility and division is not unique to Lewiston. Cultural and racial relations in Lewiston encapsulate the broader challenges in refugee relocation cities across the country.

True integration cannot be measured solely through economic metrics. It’s a two-way street, requiring established communities to embrace societal transformation brought by refugee resettlement.

I believe in Lewiston’s ability to reach successful two-way integration due to the community’s strength and history of cooperation.

The Lewiston High School state champion soccer team, powered by immigrant students, overcame racial tensions and now uses the mantra “pamoja ndugu” – Swahili for “together, brothers.” Without two-way integration, this team’s success would not have been possible.

In the wake of the October shooting, creative mutual aid fundraising efforts emerged for families who could not afford medical bills, demonstrating our capacity for mutual acceptance. Maine has a rich tradition of cooperative organizations which have strengthened community bonds and Somali refugees are beginning to take part; today’s co-ops offer affordable childcare, healthy food, herbal medicine and more. These collective efforts show us that cooperation is beginning to take root. We must expand upon this to become a fully integrated community.

The path ahead requires a sustained commitment from policymakers to promote integration and combat division through investment in language programs, cultural education, affordable housing and economic policy. It means meeting fearmongering with facts and highlighting immigrants’ valuable role in America’s social fabric. Most critically, it requires a willingness to reckon with hard truths and to firmly reject the falsities that alienate us.

Lewiston’s experiences hold important lessons for refugee resettlement cities and towns nationwide.

Our capacity to build communities united by shared hopes and goals, not divided by differences, will determine our national resilience in an era of unprecedented global migration. The work of integration must start from the ground up – starting in our classrooms and on our playgrounds. Children are remarkably empathic when given the opportunity to embrace diverse identities. Exclusion and prejudice are learned behaviors that can be unlearned through investment in educational initiatives that promote mutual understanding from an early age.

By instilling values of inclusion, diversity and cross-cultural appreciation in the next generation, we can cultivate communities bonded by our intrinsic identity as a nation of immigrants.

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