A Town Unified by Schools

By Kathleen Vail

Socks. The Somali children needed socks -- and coats, hats, mittens, scarves, and boots, too. Refugees from the arid African plains, the sandal-clad children and their parents were not prepared for the bone-chilling winters in their new home in Lewiston, Maine.

Lewiston City Schools were not prepared for the Somalis either. As teachers and school nurses scrambled to find warm clothing for the first group of 200 children who showed up in the city’s classrooms in the fall of 2001, district officials grappled with how to educate the new students.

“We didn’t have much time,” says Leon Levesque, the district’s superintendent.

Other small, homogenous towns in the U.S. have experienced sudden influxes of immigrants, luring them with the promise of plentiful jobs for unskilled workers. But in Lewiston, a once-thriving textile mill town, those jobs disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Somalis, fleeing their country after years of civil war, didn’t migrate to Lewiston for employment. They left Atlanta, where they’d been resettled by the federal government, because of the city’s high crime rate and gang violence. They sought safety and good schools. They came to keep their families intact.

“The only thing they managed to bring out of their country was their children,” says Mohammed Abdi, the district’s Somali liaison.

Today, the schools are the common thread that joins these very different cultures together.

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