The World Comes to Smallville

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Lewiston, Maine. Photos by Samantha Appleton from the New Yorker.

“‘Who authorized this?’ Lewiston officials say that this is the question they heard most often when the Somalis began showing up in town. The answer was: Nobody did. The Somalis had simply decided to come.” So writes William Finnegan in the December 11th edition of the New Yorker. (The article is not available online, but a portion of it can be read here.) Since 2001, about two thousand Somali refugees have left Atlanta and other large cities for Lewiston, a small Maine mill town of 35,000 whose population is almost entirely white and French-Canadian. Their sudden arrival, and the resulting emergence of a large, multifaceted and highly visible Somali community, might seem odd in such an out-of-a-way place. Increasingly, though, many immigrants and refugees in the United States are choosing to settle in small towns, where their presence has been greeted with a mixture of bemusement, wariness and, sometimes, hostility.

That’s what readers of Sunday’s New York Times discovered in a front-page story on a children’s soccer team in Clarkston, Georgia. The Fugees, as the team is called, is made up entirely of refugee children from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Burundi, Congo, Gambia, Iraq, Kosovo, Liberia, Somalia and Sudan; their coach is a woman from Jordan. Last summer, Clarkston’s mayor banned soccer from the town park. “In Clarkston, soccer means something different than in most places,” writes the Times’ Warren St. John. “As many as half the residents are refugees from war-torn countries around the world. Placed by resettlement agencies in a once mostly white town, they receive 90 days of assistance from the government and then are left to fend for themselves. Soccer is their game. But to many longtime residents, soccer is a sign of unwanted change, as unfamiliar and threatening as the hijabs worn by the Muslim women in town. It’s not football. It’s not baseball. The fields weren’t made for it. Mayor Swaney even has a name for the sort of folks who play the game: the soccer people.”

Lewiston and Clarkston, it would seem, are microcosms of the effect mass immigration can have on a community. Finnegan, in the New Yorker, explains:

Lewiston, an old mill town on the Androscoggin River, is known to out-of-staters–if it is known at all–for having hosted, in 1965, in a converted high-school hockey rink, a heavyweight title fight between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali. (The bout had the lowest attendance of any title fight ever.) With a population of thirty-six thousand, the town was until recently ninety-six per cent white and predominantly Catholic–French-Canadian and Irish–and was slowly losing its young people as local mills and factories closed. Unlike towns on the Maine coast, it didn’t even see tourists. Then, practically overnight, the streets seemed to be full of black African Muslims. Today, there are about three thousand Somalis in Lewiston, and dozens more arrive every month. Before the Somalis arrived, the Lewiston school system employed one teacher of English as a second language. It now employs fifteen, for five hundred students, nearly all of them Somali. At parent-teacher-conference time, the schools hire extra interpreters. An improbable migration has turned into a large-scale social experiment.

His account of the Somali community in Lewiston is engaging, sympathetic and complex, depicting not only its struggles with the broader society but with its own internal divisions, between ethnic Somalis and the Bantu, who were former slaves. In his Times piece, St. John tackles the story of Clarkston and the Fugees with a little less grace, but he does an admirable job nonetheless.

Until the refugees began arriving, the mayor likes to say, Clarkston “was just a sleepy little town by the railroad tracks.”

Since then, this town of 7,100 has become one of the most diverse communities in America.

Clarkston High School now has students from more than 50 countries. The local mosque draws more than 800 to Friday prayers. There is a Hindu temple, and there are congregations of Vietnamese, Sudanese and Liberian Christians.

At the shopping center, American stores have been displaced by Vietnamese, Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants and a halal butcher. The only hamburger joint in town, City Burger, is run by an Iraqi.

The transformation began in the late 1980s, when resettlement agencies, private groups that contract with the federal government, decided Clarkston was perfect for refugees to begin new lives. The town had an abundance of inexpensive apartments, vacated by middle-class whites who left for more affluent suburbs. It had public transportation; the town was the easternmost stop on the Atlanta rail system. And it was within commuting distance of downtown Atlanta’s booming economy, offering new arrivals at least the prospect of employment.

At first the refugees — most from Southeast Asia — arrived so slowly that residents barely noticed. But as word got out about Clarkston’s suitability, more agencies began placing refugees here. From 1996 to 2001, more than 19,000 refugees from around the world resettled in Georgia, many in Clarkston and surrounding DeKalb County, to the dismay of many longtime residents.

Many of those residents simply left. Others stayed but remained resentful, keeping score of the ways they thought the refugees were altering their lives. There were events that reinforced fears that Clarkston was becoming unsafe: a mentally ill Sudanese boy beheaded his 5-year-old cousin in their Clarkston apartment; a fire in a crowded apartment in town claimed the lives of four Liberian refugee children.

At a town meeting in 2003 meant to foster understanding between the refugees and residents, the first question, submitted on an index card, was, “What can we do to keep the refugees from coming to Clarkston?”

Typically, homogeneous cities that receive an overwhelming number of immigrants in a short period of time lack the infrastructure, resources and experience needed to smoothly integrate the newcomers into the broader city. In Markham, Ontario and Richmond, British Columbia, two suburbs that went from being mostly white to majority-Asian over the course of the 1990s, city officials were slow to deal with the tensions caused by the sudden influx of immigrants from South and East Asia, Hong Kong in particular. Controversies that erupted over the dominance of Chinese businesses in commercial areas, the cost of new ESL programs at public schools and the sudden presence of a “foreign” culture were exacerbated by municipal structures incapable of dealing with these issues; dialogue between new arrivals, longtime residents and local leaders was slow to occur.

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A similar conflict between established residents and immigrant newcomers seems to be occurring in Clarkston. The mayor, for his part, is caught between disgruntled native-born residents and the numerous—but politically marginal—newcomers.

Ms. Mufleh has a list of complaints about the Fugees’ practice field: little grass, no goals. Neighborhood children regularly wander through the scrimmages, disrupting play.

But after a gang shooting in an apartment complex behind the field in late September, she concludes that the field is not safe. She cancels practice for two days. Fed up, she storms into Mayor Swaney’s office, demanding use of the empty field in Milam Park.

When Lee Swaney first ran for City Council in Clarkston more than 15 years ago, he did so as an unabashed representative of “Old Clarkston” — Clarkston before the refugees. It was certainly the more politically viable stance. Because few of the refugees have been in the country long enough to become citizens and vote, political power resides with longtime residents. The 2005 election that gave Mr. Swaney a second four-year term as mayor of this town of 7,100 was determined by just 390 voters.

As mayor, Mr. Swaney has frequently found himself caught between these voters and the thousands of newcomers. But he has also taken potentially unpopular steps on behalf of the refugees. In 2006 he forced the resignation of the town’s longtime police chief, in part because of complaints from refugees that Clarkston police officers were harassing them. Mr. Swaney gave the new chief a mandate to purge the Police Department of rogue officers.

Within three months, the chief, a black man of Trinidadian descent named Tony J. Scipio, fired or accepted the resignations of one-third of the force.

Soccer is another matter. Mr. Swaney does not relish his reputation as the mayor who banned soccer. But he must please constituents who complain that refugees are overrunning the town’s parks and community center — people like Emanuel Ransom, a black man who moved to Clarkston in the late 1960s.

“A lot of our Clarkston residents are being left out totally,” Mr. Ransom says. “Nobody wants to help,” he says of the refugees. “It’s just, ‘Give me, give me, give me.’ ”

Mr. Swaney encourages Ms. Mufleh to make her case at the next City Council meeting. So in early October she addresses a packed room at City Hall, explaining the team’s origins and purpose and promising to pick up trash in the park after practice.

Mr. Swaney takes the floor. He admits concerns about “grown soccer people” who might tear up the field. But these are kids, he says, and “kids are our future.”

He announces his support of a six-month trial for the Fugees’ use of the field in Milam Park.

The proposal passes unanimously. At least for six months, the Fugees can play on grass.

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What is happening in Lewiston and Clarkston is being repeated across the continent in countless suburbs and small towns. While places like Markham and Richmond were able to resolve conflicts though community and government initiatives, their experience might be skewed by the fact that the immigrants who settled there were overwhelmingly affluent and middle-class. In many small American towns, however, immigrants are poor and uneducated. Lewiston’s Somalis came from a violent country with no government, so naturally, they are not particularly well-suited to enter the job market, especially in a town with a dying industrial base. Many of them have no choice but to subsist on welfare until they can either make or find work for themselves. But so far, at least according to the New Yorker and other media reports, the Somali community has done a remarkable job of integrating itself into Lewiston life. It has opened a dialogue with the broader community and there is open discussion of the issues surrounding the Somali community. Lewiston’s immigrants are also making an impact that goes far beyond the town’s borders: some of its Bantu residents are creating the world’s first Bantu dictionary.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday January 24 2007at 03:01 pm , filed under Demographics, Politics, Society and Culture, United States and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “The World Comes to Smallville”

  • C. Szabla says:

    It should be noted that refugees are not necessarily choosing to live in small towns in Maine; they are directed to settle there by agencies within the US government that handle the administration of asylees and refugees, who are not given the sort of options standard immigrants would receive. Washington actively targets towns in rural Maine or North Dakota to serve as receiving centers for such populations.

    By contrast, Latin American migrants are settling in small towns across the south and lower Midwest, creating what the NY Times has described as “The Latino South,” in which Latinos serve as a sort of go-between intermediary between polarized black and white communities. This phenomenon is far more widespread and is having a far greater impact than refugee settlement in places like Lewiston.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Actually, that’s one of the things that distinguishes Lewiston from other places: the Somalis have not been directed there by anyone. They were originally settled by the government in various places, especially Atlanta, but once they were able to move around freely they packed up and moved to Lewiston.

    Clarkston is, as you said, an example of a town where government agencies have deliberately placed refugees.

    And yes, you’re right that Latino migration into small towns is having the biggest impact.