Thursday, April 2, 2020

Mainers defend Somali neighbors against Donald Trump

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PORTLAND, Maine — Somali refugees have opened bustling shops in this state, sent their children to college, joined local government, stitched themselves into the fabric of life.

But Donald Trump suggested they also have brought crime and fostered terrorists. That incendiary charge was denounced Friday not only by a chorus of Somali leaders but by Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.

“Mr. Trump’s statements disparaging immigrants who have come to this country legally are particularly unhelpful,” Collins said in yet another rebuke from a prominent Republican of the party’s presidential nominee. “Maine has benefited from people from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and, increasingly, Africa — including our friends from Somalia.”

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Trump’s comments, delivered Thursday at a Portland rally, led to bewilderment and anger among the state’s Somalis.

“Coming from a troubled place does not mean that we are criminals,” Abdifatah Ahmed said to loud cheers at a Friday protest in Portland, where at least 4,000 Somalis live. “So we will stay here, and, you know, in November we will vote.”

The City Hall demonstration attracted about 400 people and included chants of “more love, no hate,” and signs that read “I love my neighbors” and “No place for racism.” Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, who tucked a copy of the Constitution in his shirt pocket, welcomed the city’s Somali residents.

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“We need you here,” he said.
That greeting differed from Trump’s stark message. On Thursday, the real estate tycoon told supporters that “we’ve just seen many, many crimes getting worse all the time, and as Maine knows — a major destination for Somali refugees — right, am I right?”

“Well, they’re all talking about it,” he continued. “Maine. Somali refugees. We admit hundreds of thousands — you admit, into Maine, and to other places in the United States — hundreds of thousands of refugees.”

In Lewiston, where an estimated 7,000 Somalis live, police said Friday that crime is going down, not up.

“The Somalis have not caused any increase in crime. They’re integrated here in our city,” the acting police chief, Brian O’Malley, said Friday. “The Somalis come here because they want somewhere safe and good schools to raise their kids, and that’s what Lewiston has.”

Crime in the city fell 17 percent in 2015 compared with the year before, continuing a steady, downward trend, O’Malley said.

At least 12,000 Somali refugees are estimated to have migrated to Maine following a horrific civil war in their East African homeland. Many settled first in cities such as Atlanta before moving to Maine to take advantage of more affordable housing and other services.

They faced resistance when they began arriving in Lewiston in 2001, but the Somalis there say much of that initial tension has dissipated.

“America is the land of opportunity, the land of diversity. There are a lot of different people here,” said Muhidin Libah, executive director of the Somali Bantu Community Association of Lewiston.

Trump not only raised the specter of rising crime since the Somalis arrived, but the possibility of terrorism when he spoke of the large Somali presence in Minnesota. In June, three young Somali men there were found guilty of federal charges that they tried to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State.

“You see it happening. You read about it,” Trump said in Portland. “You see it, and you can be smart, and you can be cunning and tough, or you can be very, very dumb and not want to see what’s going on, folks.”

Libah said Trump’s attack on Maine’s Somalis is “ignorant” and could incite violence.

“He doesn’t have any evidence of terrorism. We haven’t seen any of that sort. This is our country, this is our state, and we are living peacefully with the rest of the community,” Libah said.

The Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition also lashed out at Trump.

“It is damaging to the psyche of our youth to hear a major party presidential nominee condemn our culture and religion, especially while standing next to the governor of our state. We condemn his name-calling, scapegoating, and the lies perpetrated by his campaign,” the coalition said.

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald gave a quick, brusque response when asked for his reaction to Trump’s comments.

“I don’t even know what he said,” Macdonald said Friday before abruptly ending a phone interview. “We have no problems here. We have no problems with anybody. We’re a very safe community. We all get along, and that’s it.”

Macdonald has found himself in the center of controversies involving the city’s Somali population. The third-term Republican mayor has called for an accessible, online registry of every person receiving public assistance, and he once urged immigrants to “leave your culture at the door.”

Ben Chin, the Democrat he defeated in December, was scathing in his criticism of Trump.

“Those comments are completely out of line with every American value and every common-sense standard of decency and morality,” Chin said.

Trump, he added, chose to “pick on a group of a couple of thousand people who fled their home country because of rape, murder, and torture, and tell them categorically that they don’t belong here.”

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