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Lewiston Mayor's Somali Remarks Spark Criticism

Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN)
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
By: Susan Sharon

Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald is once again facing criticism for remarks he made about Somali refugees in Maine's second-largest city. In a recent interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, Mayor MacDonald said immigrants are "costing us a lot of money" and they should "accept our culture and leave your culture at the door." Last year the mayor apologized for comments he made on election night when he said the wanted to make the city less attractive to deadbeats, many of whom don't speak English. As Susan Sharon reports, members of the Maine Global Institute are now requesting a meeting with the mayor.

Mayor MacDonald's comments were first broadcast by the BBC on Sept. 11 in a segment focusing on the resettlement of nearly 6,000 ethnic Somalis and Somali Bantus to Maine's second-largest city over the past decade.

"If you want to become a citizen, that's fine, welcome to America," MacDonald said. "But you know what? When you come here, you come and you accept our culture and you leave your culture at the door."

Board members of the Maine Global Institute, whose mission is to make the least diverse state in the nation a more welcoming place for immigrants, say they are baffled by the mayor's comments. Claude Rwaganje is a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo who now lives in Portland.

"A culture is part of a person's value, so why would somebody ask me to come but leave my belief, or my value, at the door when I'm coming?" he says.

The group has written a formal letter to Mayor MacDonald asking for a meeting and a chance to discuss what he meant.

In the heart of Lewiston's downtown, where Somali-owned businesses dominate a long city block of Lisbon Street, some Somalis had not yet heard about the mayor's remarks. But 23-year-old Houda Daud learned about them through an email she received.

"When I got the email, it was very disturbing," she says. Daud was one of the first Somalis to arrive in Lewiston a dozen years ago. She started school as a sixth grader and went on to attend college for nursing. She'll graduate in a couple of months and already has her own business as a medical interpreter.

Daud says the Lewiston community has been accepting and welcoming - except for the mayor. "If he's the mayor and he's representing us as a community, he needs to represent us as a community. He cannot divide us," she says. "We've been here for long. We feel like we belong here. We work hard, pay taxes as anybody that lives in Maine, so being pushed aside is not okay."

"Actually, in America it's the freedom, you know, for all the religions," says Mohammad Muktar. Just up the street at a Somali-owned variety store, Muktar struggles in English to make a point about why he likes living in the United States, and Lewiston in particular. He says no one could ever ask someone to leave their religion at the door, and religion is a big part of culture.

"So if I tell you right now to leave your religion, I don't think you're going to accept, you know," he says.

In his office just around the corner, Mayor Robert MacDonald says he welcomes the Somalis, has a good rapport with the community and his comments to the BBC have been overblown.

"I don't care if you're European, Asian, South American, Australian, whatever, okay?" he says. "We have a unique culture in this United States and we have prospered by it. We don't need people coming in here tinkering with it."

MacDonald says that's not to suggest that members of the Somali community are trying to tinker with American culture either. As for the meeting request, Mayor MacDonald says he has no time or interest - he has more important things to do.


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