SBCMALA (Somali Bantu Community of Lewiston, Maine) occupies two rooms on the fifth floor of a tall, aging office building on a corner in downtown Lewiston, Maine. Muhidin Libah, Executive Director shares the back office with the raw materials and finished results of their basket weaving and rug braiding operations. On my way in, a stout woman in a swirling rode and scarf staffed the front office. When I left, a narrow man feeding an infant occupied the same desk.
Mr. Libah explained the rank and freedom among various Somali groups. Somali Bantu had been enslaved under colonial rule, and continued to be by ruling Somali after their 1960 independence. In 1999 the U.S. State Department gave Somali Bantu refugees high priority and began bringing large numbers to the United States. By the early 2000’s over 10,000 Somali Bantu had come to the United States, most distributed to larger cities. But like other immigrant groups, they found ways to cluster.
According to Mr. Libah, the first Somali Bantu came to Lewiston in 2004, and most of those who followed came from other American cities. He first lived outside of Syracuse New York with his family of three daughters, but was overwhelmed by the challenges and speed of life there. He investigated where other Bantu were living, and heard good things about Lewiston. “Lewiston is a slow place. There are many elderly. We come here because it is secure. We could not adapt to the speed of life in New York, Atlanta, and other large cities.”
Mr. Libah acknowledges other advantages as well. “The benefits in Maine were generous. They are less so now, but when we arrived welfare was good.” He estimates there are 3,000 Bantu in Lewiston and Auburn, who remain regardless of benefits because the pace of life is slow. He does not shy away from the fact that Bantu receive a high level of public assistance. “100% of Bantu children go to pubic school, and receive free lunch. Almost all Bantu are on food stamps. People complain about us being on welfare, but what would they like us to do? Starve?”
Mr. Libah spoke English when he came here. He’s worked at L.L.Bean and St. Mary’s Hospital. He’ll be in the United States ten years this September. He’s a citizen, boasts that he pays taxes, and feels criticism of Bantu in Lewiston is unrealistic. “We have to evolve economically.” He cites increased commercial activity along Lisbon Street, downtown’s Lewiston’s commercial spine, since the Bantu arrived. I cannot compare the street to any previous time, but the commercial buzz on a weekday in May is faint.
When I ask, “How will we live tomorrow?“, Mr. Libah points to the woven crafts in his office. “My plan is to tell our story, through arts, storytelling, meetings. I want to explain why we are here. We want to share our culture and our food. We aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. We want to be friendly.”
I cannot help but compare SBCMALA with the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association I met in Lowell, MA. Cambodian refugees came to that city almost thirty years ago now, and are much more integrated into that place than Somali Bantu are in Lewiston. Time changes so much.