English Key to Jobs for Somalis, City Says

Instructor Ann Breau works with Somali girls in an English-as-a-second-language class at a school in Lewiston, Maine.
Instructor Ann Breau works with Somali girls in an English-as-a-second-language class at a school in Lewiston, Maine. "ESL is everything," a city official says. (By Jose Leiva -- Lewiston Sun Journal)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

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.

Indeed, Lewiston is too small and too poor to have many of the landscaping, construction or housekeeping jobs that immigrants take in larger cities. The Bates bedspread factory, which gave generations of French-speaking Canadian immigrants their first paychecks, is closed, leaving only a hulk at the edge of downtown.

Instead, what Lewiston can offer is employers such as TD Banknorth, a financial services company that has moved into part of the old Bates building. There, even filing work requires employees to read the names on the files. Out of its more than 1,000 employees in Lewiston, about six are Somali, a bank spokeswoman said.

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