Somali Immigrants Rile Maine Mayor

Somalian Ismail Ahmed, left, of Lewiston, Maine, argues with Jeff Thorsvali, of Portland, prior to a march of support for the Somali community. AP

Hundreds of people marched Sunday in support of Somali immigrants in Maine's second-largest city, where the mayor earlier this month asked Somalis in an open letter to discourage friends and relatives from moving there for fear of straining the city's services.

Police said about 250 people participated in a five-block walk from a Methodist church to a mosque where many of Lewiston's Somalis worship. Some gave speeches expressing solidarity with the new arrivals.

"We are one people, we are one community," said Mohammed Abdi, a Somali elder. The United States "is a country made up of immigrants, and one immigrant group came before another. And the Somalis just happened to come ... now."

Abdi was one of several local Somali leaders who met with Mayor Larry Raymond on Friday following Raymond's release of an open letter in which he warned of a strain on resources if more Somalis move to the city of 36,000.

The letter said Lewiston, where more than 1,000 Somalis have settled in 18 months, cannot continue receiving newcomers "without negative results for all."

"We have been overwhelmed and have responded valiantly. Now we need breathing room. Our city is maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally," he wrote.

City officials estimate that about half of the 412 Somali adults living in Lewiston have found work, but some are receiving public assistance.

Somali elders called Raymond an "ill-informed leader" and said he should have sought a private meeting with them instead.

The mayor said in a statement Friday that his letter was misunderstood. He added that he was particularly troubled that Somalis viewed the letter as an attempt to foment tension.

Two protesters stood along the march route Sunday, one holding a sign that said, "How long will it take before Lewiston is like Somalia?"

But Adbi said the long-term Lewiston residents who marched in solidarity with the Somalis outnumbered the immigrants 3 to 1.
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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