Home Now: How 6000 Refugees Transformed an American Town by Cynthia Anderson

Six thousand African refugees (mostly Muslim, mostly Somalian) relocate to the historically French-Canadian, Catholic, white, blue-collar town of Lewiston, Maine. The narrative tension hinges on this story’s improbabilities, the contrasts of black and white, snow and sun. And Lewiston is no Brigadoon; with its flatlined enterprises, environmental-pollution legacies, and aging homes and infrastructure, jobs and resources are precious to the locals. What could go wrong?

In Home Now, Cynthia Anderson chronicles the everyday lives of Lewiston’s African immigrants, such as Fatuma Hussein, who establishes a nonprofit, and Nasafari Nahumure, a high-school student planning to be an attorney. Strains occur—isolation, conflicts, peanut-gallery racists, clan-division hangovers between ethnic Somalis, and the intrusion of Maine’s former governor, who is a flaccid doppelgänger of President Trump—but, on the whole, the experiment works. Its successes slowly but inexorably accumulate: efforts toward ending female-genital mutilation, better high-school soccer teams, and families shoring up their lives while also bolstering Lewiston’s long-suffering economy with small, family-run businesses.

Despite the involvement of Maine’s former governor, a flaccid doppelgänger of Trump, the experiment works.

A compelling story—one that could propel this book into a more nuanced sociological and historical investigation, but only makes a brief (and late) appearance in Anderson’s narrative—is the surge of French Canadians to Lewiston more than 100 years ago.

Déjà Vu

Lewiston was once a booming textile-manufacturing town where French-Canadians, including my ancestors, emigrated to and worked in its factories; from about 1840 until 1930 almost a million came to the U.S., and in droves to Lewiston. A 2012 study on Franco Americans living in Maine found the highest proportion of self-identifying French and French Canadian descendants to be living in Androscoggin County, where Lewiston is the largest city.

The class of 1910 at St. Peter’s School, the first parish school in Lewiston. St. Peter’s was opened to serve the French-speaking children of immigrants who arrived in droves in the mid-1800s to work in the local mills.

In Maine, where Anderson and I both grew up (in the same town, 45 minutes upriver from Lewiston), people’s references tend to be in generations, especially French-Canadians’, because we have not ignored the long scale of history that brought us to America. So it makes sense that Lewistonians understand intrinsically, if not consciously, the disposition of the African refugees and their transition from persecuted immigrants to American citizens. In Lewiston, we see the refugees of disasters meeting the descendants of other hardships—vastly different in nature and severity—and both groups negotiating their hardships with self-sufficiency, solidarity, a collaborative ethos, family values, and religion, and with the knowledge that Lewiston, like the rest of America, has always been dependent on immigrants to prosper.

From about 1840 until 1930 almost a million French-Canadians came to the U.S., and in droves to Lewiston.

Anderson tiptoes around Lewiston’s past with personal recollections about living in Maine and, unfortunately, skim-coats the state’s French-Canadian history. In modulated tones, she outlines Somalia’s “civil war that has yet to resolve” with little mention of its oppressive regime while, as of September 2019, more than two million Somalis are expected to face extreme hunger, with more than 6.3 million estimated to be food insecure by the end of the year. Anderson doesn’t quite tether immigrant triumphs in America with the people buoying them or tie the background to the foreground, as it were. Her invitation exists, but she never stamps the envelope.

More troubling, however, is the fact that while longtime Lewiston residents recognize the resuscitation of their town by African-American immigrants, the needle of Trump’s “America First” threads their very real economic anxieties, and they are starting to turn toward him as the nation approaches 2020—he was the first Republican candidate to win an electoral vote in Maine since 1988— despite thin proof that he will help them more than the African-Americans who are their neighbors.

Home Now illustrates how immigration can be positive even when most don’t expect it to be, even amid political leaders who seek to subvert the en masse movement of brown people to the U.S. Anderson’s sometimes bland descriptions of immigrants’ applying to college, having babies, or exercising their constitutional rights muster hope in the absence of things going wrong. As Anderson writes wisely, “Perhaps this is how communities form, one gesture at a time.”

Kerri Arsenault’s book on the paper-mill town of Rumford, Maine, What Remains, will be published in October of 2020 by St. Martin’s