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The Great Somali Welfare Hunt

The Refugee Act of 1980 has turned thousands of Somali Bantu into American dependents. Millions more “refugees” may be eligible for resettlement in your neighborhood.

The deconstruction of America is well underway. This has been clear to anyone living in California since the 1970s. Back then I remember talking with people who lived out of state about the changes that were being wrought by immigration, both legal and illegal, to California from countries of the Third World. No one could quite believe that the changes were as drastic and far-reaching as I described. Many considered me an alarmist. Those who did not thought that what I described was peculiar to California. The last decade has changed all that. What began in California thirty years ago is now happening everywhere. I would like to say that I take a perverse delight in having reality smack those nonbelievers in the face. I don’t. The America that I love, the America that I joined the Marine Corps to defend, the America of my ancestors, is being destroyed.

The latest community to enjoy the delights of Third World mass immigration is Lewiston, Maine, which, since February 2001, has been the destination for hundreds of Somali Muslims. The first Muslim to arrive in the town actually got there in May 1965, but his stay was brief. He was there to fight Sonny Liston in a rematch. The year before, as Cassius Clay, he took Liston’s crown in a bizarre seven-round battle in Miami that saw the dreaded Liston, a 7-1 favorite, quit while sitting on his stool. “The fix was in,” was the consensus. Between fights Clay converted to Islam and adopted the name Muhammad Ali. He won his second fight with Liston, a 7-5 favorite this time, in an equally bizarre one-round match. Again came the cry, “The fix was in.” Little did the citizens of Lewiston realize that, 36 years later, Muslims would begin arriving in their town again. This time they would stay. Once more the fix seems to be in.

Lewiston, a former mill town of 36,000 on the Androscoggin River, was virtually all white when the federal census was taken in 2000. Blacks, with 383 people, accounted for 1.1% of the population. No other nonwhite group accounted for more than a fraction of a percent. The exact percentage for whites was recorded as 97.3. With the mills shut down and a less than robust economy, it would seem an unlikely place for Somalis to flock to. Nonetheless, upwards of 2,000 have already done so, and more are on the way.

The problem goes back to the Refugee Act of 1980, which amended the Immigration and Nationality Act and changed a traditional American policy of favoring refugees from Communist countries. The act put the United States in line with the United Nations by redefining “refugee” more broadly to include anyone “who is unwilling or unable to return to his country of nationality or habitual residence because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Potentially half the world falls under the definition. The Refugee Act also provided for both a regular flow and the emergency admission of refugees as well as federal monies for their resettlement.

In 1999, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) declared the Somali Bantu “refugees,” and the United States agreed to resettle them. The ancestral home of these particular Bantu was Tanzania, but Arab slave traders took them to Somalia during the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite the end of slavery during the 20th century, the transplanted Bantu remained less than equal in Somalia. They were restricted to jobs considered demeaning, excluded from the Somali clan system, and referred to by pejorative names, generally meaning something like “lowly slave.” Most of them lived in the Juba River valley of southern Somalia. When civil war erupted with the overthrow of the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991, they fell prey to various warlords. Mostly lacking arms themselves, they were dispossessed of their land and property by whatever faction temporarily took power. Eventually, more than 12,000 of the Somali Bantu crossed into Kenya and settled in a UN sponsored refugee camp at Dadaab in eastern Kenya, where more than 100,000 other Somali had also fled.

Logic would suggest that these 12,000 black, African Muslims be resettled in their former homeland, the black, African nation of Tanzania, which is more than a third Muslim and borders Kenya, instead of being transported thousands of miles to the United States. But somehow, the UN commissioners and American officials think the good, old U.S.A. is just right for the Somali Bantu—and other Somali refugees as well.

Most of the early arrivals in the United States settled in Clarkston, next-door to Atlanta, but problems quickly developed with local blacks who, the Somali contend, preyed on them. A few Somali had problems with another form of American diversity. Mohammed Abdi said that he was resettled north of Atlanta in a “war zone” between Vietnamese and Mexican gangs. Moreover, Somalis soon learned that welfare benefits and public housing were more generous and better elsewhere, especially in New England. By February 2001, they had discovered Lewiston, and the influx began. The numbers of those arriving accelerated last summer, exceeding 100 a month. Although it is difficult to get an exact fix on the figures, it seems that more than half of all Somalis in Lewiston are on the dole. Welfare spending has more than doubled since their arrival.

One of the Somalis who has a job is Abdiaziz Ali, a 31-year-old father of five who arrived in Lewiston last year. Ali is a welfare caseworker. He greets new arrivals, puts them on welfare, and finds them housing. He is happy to be in Lewiston, where benefits are substantial, schools good, and crime low. He himself was robbed twice by local blacks in Atlanta.

Mohammed Maye, the president of the African Community and Refugee Center in Clarkston, has a map of Lewiston on the wall of his office. “Go to Maine,” he advises Somalis. He has recently opened a second office in Lewiston. Abdullahi Abdullahi, the president of the Somali Community Development Organization in Clarkston, tells Somalis that, unlike Georgia, Maine has terribly cold winters, but “the welfare system is better.” Better for sure. Lewiston provides welfare to anyone in need, and the state picks up half the tab. Recipients are allowed a generous five years of assistance before benefits are terminated, and, even at that point, extensions are not difficult to obtain. Single parents can stay on welfare and go to college. Public housing is also available, although, because of the influx of Somalis, there is now a waiting list. More than a third of the apartments at Hillview, Lewiston’s largest public housing project, are occupied by Somalis, many of them single mothers with large broods of children. The fathers are unaccounted for or still in Georgia or Africa. Those who are unable to obtain public housing are eligible for Section 8 vouchers, which the federal government provides to subsidize rental of private housing.

Just where all the Somalis will eventually be employed is a mystery. The mills of Lewiston, once upon a time, produced a quarter of all American textiles. Across the Androscoggin River, the factories of Auburn turned out shoes by the thousands. Foreign competition has destroyed those industries. Like many other communities in the United States, Lewiston has tried to re-invent itself and create a service-based economy. Banking, insurance, healthcare, and the like, however, do not provide the blue-collar jobs that have sustained generations of immigrants with few skills and limited English. Perhaps the demise of the old industries is of little consequence to the Somalis. When Renee Bernier, the president of the Lewiston city council, offered to hire 30 Somalis at $8 an hour to hold warning signs at road construction sites, few showed any interest. Those who did wanted to work no more than a half-day, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

With the welfare system, public housing, and, to a rapidly increasing degree, the schools creaking under the strain of the Somalis, some in Lewiston have dared to speak out. Recently, mayor Laurier Raymond, in a public letter, asked the Somali leaders to discourage the migration to Lewiston, saying the city was “maxed out financially, physically and emotionally.” He was immediately attacked by the former mayor, Kaileigh Tara, who said she “wanted to cry” when she read Raymond’s letter. Somali leaders said he is “an ill-informed leader who is bent toward bigotry.” The usual terms xenophobe and racist were bandied about. A protest march of some 200 Somalis and their white sympathizers traveled several blocks from a downtown Methodist church to Lewiston’s first mosque, a converted grocery store on Lisbon Street. The U.S. Department of Justice was called upon to conduct an investigation to ensure that the Somalis are not discriminated against. The UN cannot be far behind.

Meanwhile, the 71-year-old Raymond, a former probate judge, has been brought to heel. He met with local Somali leaders at city hall and vowed to co-operate with the Somali community to reduce tensions in Lewiston. After the meeting, the Somalis issued a written statement saying, “Like all families, we have our misunderstandings, but families draw strength from resolving their issues.” Raymond had evidently been operating under the misapprehension that Muslim Somali Bantu were not part of his family.

Raymond’s new family practices female genital mutilation, specifically clitorectomy. Termed “female circumcision” by the culturally sensitive and euphemistically inclined, the barbaric practice is common among African Muslims. Not infrequently the clitoris is cut out without the benefit of anesthesia or surgical instruments. Broken bottles or tin can lids occasionally serve as scalpels. This means that often not only is the clitoris cut out but that portions of the labia are also cut away or severely damaged. According to reports from the refugee camps in Kenya, hundreds of girls are being rushed through the mutilation because U.S.-sponsored cultural orientation classes have informed the refugees that the practice is illegal in the United States. The Somali Bantu usually excise the clitoris when girls reach the age of eight or nine. In recent weeks, girls as young as two have undergone the ordeal.

More than 12,000 Somali Bantu have now been transferred from the Dadaab camp, near the border with Somalia, across 600 miles of Kenya to the Kakuma camp in the northwest. Next stop, the United States. The Somalis do not have to worry about using their credit card air miles—it is all courtesy of Uncle Sam. There are plenty more refugees in Kenya. The UNHCR counts nearly 200,000, most of them Somalis but large numbers of Sudanese as well. The Somali Bantu could be just the beginning.

Those Somali already in Lewiston have found what they call their “dream place.” Nonetheless, they understand that there are other dream places in the United States, and they mean to find them. Following their ancient practice of “sahan,” they send young men out in all directions to find not water and good grazing, as in Somalia, but public housing and generous welfare benefits. The tribe then follows. “They came in droves off the buses,” said Lewiston council president Bernier, and “some made the welfare office their first stop.” The practice of sahan has become more sophisticated in the United States. The Somalis use the Internet to access the websites of states and towns across the nation, checking crime rates, welfare programs, housing, and schools. Employment opportunities are evidently a low priority. This certainly removes the main obstacle for most of us relocating to dream places. Abdiaziz Ali, the welfare caseworker, is not shy about announcing the Somalis’ intentions. “We can spread out—anywhere we want.”

Anywhere, for now, means mostly towns in New England. Holyoke, Massachusetts has been targeted for Somali Bantu settlement by a coalition of religious charities. The coalition has received a million-dollar grant from the federal government to establish the Somalis in the town famous for the first women’s college. Holyoke city councilors, however, say that even with the grant the costs of absorbing the Somalis would be prohibitive. By a 12-2 vote the councilors passed a resolution that stated, “The city does not have the resources to care for, educate, train, house or protect said individuals.” The resolution concluded by firmly proclaiming that the councilors “do not support the decision to place the refugees in our city.” Federal officials say the local townsfolk have no control over the resettlement grant and cannot prevent the Somalis from moving to Holyoke. Local sentiment against the anticipated arrival of the Somalis has been so strong that the charities coalition canceled a public presentation and slide show on the plight of the refugees. I suspect the slide show did not include photos of mutilated genitalia.

Holyoke mayor Michael Sullivan tried to calm the citizens, saying, “Don’t blame the victims. The victims are the city—and the Bantus. Its not fair that Holyoke has to be alone in this, but if nobody’s going to do it, we have to try.” Actually, the federal government does not have to do this to Holyoke or to any town in America. The American people, in poll after poll, have voiced their opposition to our current immigration policies. We are under no obligation to destroy the ethnic, religious, and cultural traditions that have built this country. We are under no obligation to destroy the homogeneity of small towns in America.

With upwards of 130,000 Somalis in Kenyan camps hoping to be resettled in the United States, towns throughout America might soon have the opportunity to enjoy the diversity that a thousand or two African Muslims will bring them. Meanwhile, we send our boys overseas to fight and die, ostensibly to protect the United States. One of those boys who died in Somalia, in our ill-conceived raid on Mogadishu—so brilliantly dramatized in “Black Hawk Down”—was SSgt. Thomas J. Field, Army Ranger and native son of Lisbon, just downriver from Lewiston. Local folk got the state highway that connects Lisbon and Lewiston named in his honor. In Lewiston, the highway becomes Lisbon Street, which now features Lewiston’s first mosque, regularly crowded with Somalis. May God rest your soul brave young man—because somewhere “the fix is in.”

Roger D. McGrath is an historian in California and the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes (Univ. of California Press) among other books.