LEWISTON, Maine—Sahra Habib still speaks English in short bursts, with pronouns missing and verb tenses sometimes mangled. But after a job search in which she was rejected by four employers, there is at least one Americanism she can now repeat from memory.
“Don’t call,” she said it goes, “We’re going to call you.”
Hers is the story of Lewiston today, as sky-high unemployment among the city’s 2,500 Somali refugees is adding a difficult new chapter to one of the most unlikely stories in U.S. immigration.
Five years after African immigrants began flocking to this former mill town, city officials say they still are not qualified for many of the jobs the city has to offer. In response, Lewiston is enforcing one of the country’s most aggressive policies aimed at speeding assimilation: Somalis here often must take English classes, or risk losing some welfare benefits.
“ESL,” said assistant city administrator Phil Nadeau, summing up the city’s English-as-a-second-language philosophy, “is everything.”
The city’s Somali influx began in 2001, when refugees who had fled a brutal civil war in Africa began migrating again, leaving larger American cities in search of safer streets and cheaper housing. They found both in Lewiston, a city of almost 36,000 in Maine’s lower midsection.
In late 2002, after the Somali population had reached 1,000, then-Mayor Laurier T. Raymond Jr. set off a national controversy by asking Somali community leaders to stop the influx. “Pass the word: We have been overwhelmed,” he wrote.
Since then, Somalis have continued to flow into Lewiston: The most recent arrivals are about 300 Somali Bantus, members of an ethnic group from the same region. The African immigrant community’s presence shows up here in colorful hijabs worn by female passersby and in the Mogadishu Store and the Red Sea restaurant, which face each other across downtown’s Lisbon Street.
But, for all that has changed about this struggling old town, one thing has not.
“Without English, no job,” said a woman who gave her name as Salima Maalim A., 20, and who was talking with Habib, 30, in the Mogadishu Store.
To the south, in big-city Portland, officials say the jobless rate among Somali immigrants is less than 10 percent. In Lewiston, “it’s easily over 50 percent,” Nadeau said. He said the city does not have an exact figure because it has trouble tracking the demographics of the Somali population.
The solution, city officials think, is to compress the traditional arc of an immigrant family’s assimilation—from low-skill jobs to English fluency and the service economy—into a single generation.
To that end, Somalis who apply for “General Assistance”—a few hundred dollars a month in local funds for housing, food and other expenses—are usually required to take English classes.
“If they don’t do it, they’re not eligible,” said Sue Charron, who administers the program. She noted, however, that exceptions are made for those who cannot attend classes because of disabilities or having to care for young children. She said only a few Somalis have been taken off for noncompliance.
Other welfare programs around the country require participants to work, perform community service or attend employment-related training. But immigration experts say it is rare for any jurisdiction to have an across-the-board English requirement, and they question how much good such a program would do.