After bumpy start, Maine town embraces African immigrants

LEWISTON, Maine -- Lunchtime at Lewiston High School: the hallways fill with a boisterous, diverse crowd of students.

What's remarkable is, this school used to be almost entirely white. Now nearly 25 percent of the kids are East African refugees.

"It's working out really good in our schools," principal Shawn Chabot told CBS News. "You'll see kids interacting with all kinds of other kids. There isn't different groups of students -- they're all one big school."

Nearly 25 percent of the students at Lewiston High School are East African refugees. CBS News

But it wasn't always so idyllic. When the refugees began arriving 15 years ago, many longtime residents were resentful. Lewiston's economy was tanking, businesses were closing, jobs were scarce. The newcomers were seen as welfare freeloaders.

"They said, 'Why you come here? Go back where you come from,'" store owner Shukir Abasheikh recalled.

She fled Somalia in 1999, and said attitudes changed when people saw how hard the immigrants were willing to work.

"When we come here, just we need education and peace and work," Abasheikh said.

Shukir Abasheikh works at her store in Leiwston, Maine. CBS News

In fact, the city's public assistance spending has remained unchanged since 1990. But what has changed is Lewiston itself. The town of 36,000 is now home to about 6,000 refugees, who have revived downtown.

"I believe we're better off having a community where it's acceptance, that people trust one another," Chabot said.

High school senior Abdi Shariff's family moved here when he was nine.

"Some people just need to be educated and ask questions," Shariff said. "Just to get to know us."

Last year, the Lewiston High soccer team, which Shariff captained, won the state championship -- the first in school history. How many players on the team are Somalis?

"We have about 26 players on the varsity team, and I wanna say roughly about 21 of them are non-native Americans," Chabot said.

About 4,500 people turned out for the championship game to cheer on their school, their community. Their kids.