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The immigrants who prove Trump wrong

For Abdikadir Negeye, who is with Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services, a Somali-founded community organization in Le...

Posted: Jan 14, 2018 7:57 AM
Updated: Jan 14, 2018 7:58 AM

For Abdikadir Negeye, who is with Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services, a Somali-founded community organization in Lewiston, it was shocking to hear reports that that the president of his adopted country had described countries in Africa as "shitholes."

"I never expected this word from a leader," he told me. "I am not ashamed of the country where I was born and I am not ashamed to call myself a Somali-American. But I am so disgusted, ashamed and disturbed that a commander in chief would use this word. Trump should learn about embracing diversity and read his history books. He and his supporters should be embarrassed."

Donald Trump traveled to Maine during his presidential campaign to make hay of the large Somali community that lives there, works there and goes to school there. At a Portland campaign stop just two months before the election in 2016, Trump, with Gov. Paul LePage beside him, talked about how Maine was dealing with "many, many crimes getting worse all the time" because of Somali refugees. His remarks stoked the myths and stereotypes that the Somali community encountered when it first arrived in Maine, primarily in Lewiston, a former mill town that had seen better days, at the turn of the 21st century.

Lewiston's police chief, Brian O'Malley, would have none of it, asserting to the local media that there was no connection between the growing Somali community and rising crime rates because, if anything, "our crime rate has gone down."

Trump's notion that Somali refugees made Maine dangerous was based on nothing more than his now well-documented worldview that assumes predominantly Muslim (or Spanish-speaking, or black, or fill-in-the-blank here) countries are an automatic threat to the United States. But facts aren't exactly this president's strong suit, with The Washington Post recently marking his 2,000th lie.

While Trump on Friday denied his use of the word, White House spokesman Raj Shah didn't deny the "shithole" comment. Rather, Shah also tried to refocus the conversation on what he said was Trump's attempt to attract immigrants "who can contribute to our society."

Would an immigrant community that helped transform an economically downtrodden city in Maine fit his bill? Because anyone who thinks Lewiston soccer star Maulid Abdow, who is now doing a postgraduate year at Hyde Academy, isn't contributing to American society hasn't seen him laser a ball past a goalie.

For my forthcoming book, I spent the better part of two years writing about Lewiston and its high school soccer team, the Blue Devils, who have a varsity roster composed primarily of African immigrants, most of whom are Somali refugees. Their historic run at the school's first state championship title in soccer brought the community together to support them -- by the thousands -- on the day it all happened.

The players told me about the stuff they heard on the field, the so-called typical stuff. "Go home," a defender might mutter while trying to get the ball past a Lewiston midfielder, often followed by the n-word. "Go back."

When these kids first arrived in the United States, usually by way of the Dadaab or Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya, they didn't know the words that the other kids at school threw at them. But they understood what was being said from the intonation, the facial expression, the scorn, the venom. Their parents, of course, heard it as well, on their way to their many jobs, while buying groceries, or when walking their kids to school.

But just as these families needed Lewiston, the nearly all-white former mill town needed them, too. The Somali population filled empty apartments, helped revive downtown by opening stores selling halal meats and colorful hijabs, and started graduating students from the high school at a higher rate than "native" Mainers.

With high school soccer coach Mike McGraw, these players translated their tight-knit family connections to success on the pitch, showing Maine a kind of soccer it had never seen before, and bringing pride to the school, the city, and the state.

The meteoric rise of the Lewiston Blue Devils to the top ranks of high school soccer shows what happens when America works the way it is supposed to -- the way it reads on paper in the documents we all study in civics or history class. But the President's words, which players say hurt every time he utters them, confuse that vision of the United States. They make no sense in light of these students' own understanding of what they learn in class at Lewiston High School.

Of course, life in America isn't perfect. When Trump signed the first travel ban of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia, Lewiston's immigrant community found itself on high alert, worried that a racial divide could crack the city wide open. Incidents of anti-immigrant harassment dotted the local newspapers, reminiscent of the days when the refugees first arrived. A kid in a Trump shirt told a soccer player that his time in the city was coming to an end. One Somali woman was almost run down by an angry driver, while another reported having her hijab yanked by a woman who told her to go back to Africa.

Like the generations of French-Canadian immigrants before them, Somalis found Lewiston in hopes of creating a better life. Their story, they might tell someone like Tomi Lahren, who tweeted "If they aren't shithole countries, why don't their citizens stay there?", fits well within the trajectory of US history they learn about in school, with a variety of complicated factors pushing them out of one place and into another.

"It's awful to see that the President is degrading us," says Mohamed Khalid, who played defense for Lewiston's championship squad and is now a business administration major at the University of Southern Maine. "He says he is fighting for the American people instead of the people in Africa, but so many Americans here are from other countries."

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