Seeking a better life, immigrants support each other, build community in Maine / by Bereket Abebe

The bright lights of America. A house, a car, a neighborhood, a job. 

This image of an American Dream for many immigrants arriving in Maine is more out of reach than they had previously thought. Many New Mainers, however, have created their own version of this dream — one that’s built around and by a community of immigrants like themselves. 

Originally from Djibouti, Mohammed Ibrahim migrated to Qatar before immigrating to the United States in 2012 because of what he described as internal political problems in Qatar that forced him to seek asylum. 

“I came to the United States with a tourist visa, and applied for an asylum status and was in the process for at least four and a half years before I received my asylum acceptance from the government and was granted asylum legally,” said Ibrahim, who now lives in Lewiston and is an organizer with Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project.) . 

Ibrahim saw firsthand the complexities of the U.S. immigration process, as well as the challenges of acclimating to and navigating life in a new country. 

“For an immigrant, when normally a family or an individual moves to the United States, they are just kind of left behind or are thrown in the sea, in the ocean, to understand for themselves what’s happening,” Ibrahim said. 

Ibrahim explained that there’s no clear guidance on how to carry out basic necessities of living, like securing reliable housing, paying utilities, and finding transportation or medical care.

For immigrants, he continued, “Many were coming from the dangers of their known world to an unknown, complex environment without any real transition as they became citizens of a new country.”  

Once he got settled, Ibrahim used what he learned to help others like himself, many of whom were fleeing war and persecution in their home countries. 

“The first impression I often had in my interactions with new immigrants was fear, hopelessness, and skepticism due to their traumatic past and confusion with their present lives,” Ibrahim said. 

Originally from Somalia, Lewiston resident Safiya Khalid and her family immigrated to the U.S. in 2003. Like Ibrahim, the process of immigration added to the challenges and trauma that her family was already experiencing. 

“Coming here, my mother really struggled. There were challenges during the [time in] the refugee camp, and when she lived in Somalia,” Khalid explained. “Those struggles and challenges didn’t ease away — they continued into mistakes because she didn’t have people waiting for her and supporting her and looking out for her.”

Though still young herself, Khalid said she was forced to step up and help financially because her mom “was struggling and then became disabled. So I felt like a lot was on my shoulders,” she said. Khalid worked numerous jobs, including at L.L. Bean throughout high school and college.

For many like Khalid and Ibrahim who have come  to the U.S., there is a lack of reliable, accessible support, leaving immigrants and refugees on their own to learn the complexities of the immigration system and  navigate local aid and assistance and other basics of life in the U.S. 

With over 47,000 immigrants currently living in Maine, there is a need for more assistance. In many cases, immigrants, refugees, and community members have stepped up to fill in the holes in government-assisted programs and build safety networks to support each other. 

Currently, in his work with Maine People’s Alliance, Ibrahim works with immigrants and immigrant organizations to collaborate and advocate for policies that will help improve their lives..  

“One of my goals in coalition building is to create a space within the organizations owned by immigrants,” he said.

In addition, Ibrahim has started a group called Lewiston-Auburn Task Force. The LA Task Force serves “to put some pressure on the Maine congressional members: Senator Angus King, Senator Susan Collins, and our Representative Jared Golden,” he explained.

Safiya Khalid and supporters during her 2019 campaign for Lewiston City Council. | via Facebook

Khalid serves as a city councilor in Lewiston, the first Somali-American ever elected to that position in Lewiston, and works as a case manager for Gateway Community Services, a nonprofit that provides education and support to immigrants and refugees in the greater Portland and Lewiston areas. In her position, she creates events and panels for youth with tools to get them involved in their communities, state legislature, and local politics.

The deep and growing community of immigrant led- advocacy and organizing in Maine has been driven in large part in recent years by the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition (MIRC), which was founded by the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in 2005 to improve immigrant inclusion in Maine life. 

Since its inception, MIRC has provided support in areas of transportation, medical finances, food, and housing. MIRC acts as an ecosystem and hub for “other organizations that are supporting immigrants and refugees in Maine” and currently houses 77 groups, “a majority of which are led by people of color — representing diverse ethnic communities across Maine,” according to the website.  

Under MIRC, organizations provide guidance in areas where immigrants have struggled. For example, the Greater Portland Family Promise “is dedicated to helping homeless and low income families in the Greater Portland area achieve sustainable independence.” The group helps families “maintain their housing by assisting with food, personal care and household needs, and other key resources and supports.” Another organization, the Maine Immigrant Access Network, helps bridge access to health and social services for immigrants and refugees.

These programs provide essential assistance, helping to relieve the burden on immigrants and refugees arriving in Maine. Khalid said they also reveal some of the larger gaps within the social safety net in the U.S..

For immigrants, “having to fight for these basic necessities is terrible, but I’m glad MIRC and these nonprofits and these people on the ground are really supporting folks who are struggling,” Khalid said. However, she said those struggles aren’t right.. “It should be a given, health care is a human right,” Khalid said. 

The work Khalid and Ibrahim are doing in their communities, they say, helps bridge the gap between providing people with basic needs and teaching them to advocate for policies that would benefit everyone living in the U.S..

“Over the course of my life, I’ve seen how oppressive governments use fear to keep people from joining together, and how through community organizing and support people are able to make change,” Ibrahim wrote in a 2020 op-ed.  

Despite the challenges of integrating and assimilating into U.S. society, many New Mainers have adapted and are working within their community to build a new home for themselves. Many continue to mold their version of the American Dream as best they can. 

Although hardship continues, Ibrahim said, “many cover their shock with a genuine smile that seems to be saying ‘Everything is going well.’” 

Author: Bereket Abebe is a sophomore at Bowdoin College and was the 2021 Summer Communications Fellow at Maine People’s Alliance.

Source: Maine Beacon, August 21, 2021 | https://mainebeacon.com/