How an influx of refugees from Somalia and other African countries challenged an old mill town in Maine to redefine itself.
As a New Yorker article noted more than a decade ago, an improbable migration has turned Lewiston into “a large-scale social experiment.” That statement was “a blunt but not inaccurate assessment” of the once-thriving and overwhelmingly white town, writes Anderson (Writing/Boston Univ.; River Talk, 2014), who grew up nearby. The town was facing economic ruin after its industries vanished and its population declined. Then more than 6,000 refugees from Somalia and other African countries began to stream into town. Despite resistance from the mayor and private citizens, the newcomers reenergized the community by opening shops, forming cultural groups, and leading the high school to its first-ever state soccer championship. In this sympathetic account of their efforts, Anderson follows a group of Somali, Congolese, and other refugees from 2016 to early 2019, offering intimate glimpses of their homes and workplaces and their birthday, wedding, and other celebrations. In an especially memorable scene, the founder of a Somali women’s rights group testifies, at a legislative hearing, against a bill that would have criminalized female genital mutilation in Maine—and might have discouraged women harmed by the practice from seeking medical help—even as she describes herself as “a survivor of this horrendous procedure.” Elsewhere, a refugee who works at L.L. Bean praises his employer for giving Muslim workers a dedicated space for five-times-a-day prayer. Worthy as such stories are, Anderson’s self-conscious recounting of them often reveals more about her than her subjects. The author also skimps on or belatedly introduces vital context. Not until Chapter 7, for example, does she adequately supply the background on the civil war in Somalia that explains why so many people fled the country. A more helpful overview of Lewiston’s turnaround appears in Amy Bass’ One Goal. Anderson provides a more up-to-date yet imperfect portrait of the enduring challenges faced by Lewiston.
Close-ups of refugees who transformed a town but it's short on geopolitical context.