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Maine's black population doubles

When Hamza Haadoow moved to Portland in December 2000, the Somali community was so small that everybody recognized each other.

Now there are so many Somalis that Haadoow is often mistaken for a new arrival.

"The population has increased so the people don't know each other now," said Haadoow, a 32-year-old father of four.

The number of blacks in Maine nearly doubled between 2000 and 2005, but the state still has the nation's whitest population, according to data released Friday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

A significant portion of the black population is in Portland, a resettlement area for refugees, including those from Somalia and Sudan. Many other Somalis have made the Lewiston-Auburn area their home in recent years.

The Census Bureau estimated the number of blacks in Maine in 2005 at 13,456, or 1 percent of the population. That's up from 6,760, or 0.5 percent of the population, in 2000. During the five-year period, the white population declined from 96.9 percent of the total to 96 percent.

Among other racial minority groups, Asians and American Indians also gained, but their percentages hovered around 1 percent of the population. Hispanics, who are not considered a racial category by the federal government, also grew to that level.

Androscoggin County, where Lewiston and Auburn are located, had the largest increase in black residents. The population increased from 709 to 1,492, or 110.4 percent.

Haadoow, who drives a cab while studying accounting and working at group homes, came directly to Maine from a refugee camp in Kenya. But many Somalis are moving from larger cities such as Atlanta, where they were initially resettled.

Lewiston, with its affordable housing, is an increasingly popular destination. The city gained a reputation among some as an unfriendly place, Haadoow said, when a former mayor in 2002 tried to discourage more Somalis from moving there. Controversy struck again in July, when a Lewiston resident was charged with desecrating a house of worship by rolling a pig's head into a mosque.

But Haadoow predicted Somalis will continue moving to Maine because they like its slower pace and safer streets. It's a trend he's happy about.

"I believe it will help us to live close together," said Haadoow, a volunteer for the East Africa Family Association, which assists Somalis and other Africans in Maine. "That way, culturally we may survive."

From the Somali-language bus advertisements about asthma in Portland to the storefront mosque down the street from a handful of Somali-owned businesses in downtown Lewiston, signs of the community's growth are evident.

Maine's fast-growing southernmost counties have the state's other large populations of blacks. The number of blacks increased from 817 to 1,058, or 29.5 percent, in York County, and from 3,083 to 4,056, or 31.6 percent, in Cumberland County.

The state is getting more new residents from Massachusetts, and it makes sense that the areas to which they move reflect, to a degree, the greater ethnic diversity of the Bay State, said Catherine Reilly, Maine's state economist.

The 2005 figures are estimates made with the use of administrative records on births, deaths and migration, with the 2000 census used as a base.

Maine's Hispanic population increased from 9,360 to 13,045, or 39.4 percent.

Interpreters fluent in Spanish are a hot commodity Down East because hundreds of Mexicans and Central Americans have settled in the area to take jobs raking blueberries and processing seafood.

Juliana Vazquez, once the only Hispanic student at Narraguagus High School in Harrington, estimates that at least 15 other Latinos are there now.

"We like how the community tries to involve the Mexican people," said Vazquez, who is raising a 1-year-old daughter in Milbridge. "They even try to learn Spanish."

Reilly, the state economist, said the growth of minority and immigrant groups can help balance Maine's aging population. That change can affect the economy because businesses that might open or move here look for work forces and growing markets, she said.

Noel Bonam, director of the new state Office for Multicultural Affairs, said the census data confirm anecdotal evidence that Maine's immigrant population is growing, but he cautioned that it may not reflect the true numbers.

Lewiston city officials, for example, estimate Somalis may number as many as 3,000, far more than the estimate of 1,492 black residents in all of Androscoggin County.

To get a better sense of how many immigrants are living in Maine, Bonam said, it will be important to count everybody for the 2010 Census. His office plans to raise awareness about the census with help from grass-roots immigrant groups, starting next year.

With undercounting, "a lot has to do with people who tend to slip through the cracks or don't think it's important enough to do it," he said.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

akim@pressherald.com

Staff WriterJosie Huang can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

jhuang@pressherald.com


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