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Initiative Aims To Clear Up Stereotypes, Misconceptions About New Mainers



For the past several weeks, “new” Mainers have been breaking bread with longtime residents of Lewiston and Auburn, swapping stories about their families and breaking down stereotypes about immigrants and refugees.

It’s part of a national initiative to address the uptick in hate crimes. One focus of the sessions is to teach bystanders how to safely intervene in a bias incident before it escalates.

Building relationships with strangers doesn’t happen on an empty stomach, so part of each conversation involves a meal. In this case, it’s a Somali potluck dinner featuring a savory pastry called sambusa served up in the basement of the Community Concepts building in Lewiston.

This is just one of nearly 20 facilitated discussions that wrap up this month. Each group meets twice, and their discussions span several hours and cover provocative themes about race, religion and prejudice — like the misperception that anyone from Somalia is a terrorist.

“No, we’re not terrorists. As a matter of fact terrorists attack everyone equally. They harm Muslim people too,” says Fowsia Musse of Lewiston translating for Ayan Ali, one of several Somali women taking part in the group. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think terrorists and I have the same religion or beliefs. I don’t think they’re normal people either. I would like the world to eradicate all terrorists, because they cause us a lot of grief. They cause us a lot of shame because they look like us. They wear the same clothes as us.”

Facilitator Steve Wessler has the group discuss several other stereotypes about new Americans: that they’re lazy, don’t want to work and are all on welfare. And then Wessler, with help from the group itself, breaks them down one by one.

“Are these accurate about new Americans being lazy?” he says.

“My experience is no,” says Glen Holmes, director of economic development for Community Concepts Finance Corporation and a native Mainer who lives in Buckfield. “Some of the most hardworking, dedicated people I’ve met have been new Mainers.”

“They take the jobs that other people feel they’re too good for,” says Tara Saunders.

But Saunders says one of the reasons she’s participating in the discussion is that she has a lot to learn about how refugees and new immigrants receive aid. She says other people she knows don’t understand that either.

“And so, therefore, we put our own assumptions. And I think what most people need to be is much better informed what the aid is,” she says.

One of Wessler’s exercises involves arming members of the group with statistics about the type of aid immigrants receive from the government, how much they contribute to the economy and their rate of home ownership.

Wessler has been doing civil rights and conflict resolution work in Maine and around the world for more than 25 years. This project, funded by a small grant in partnership with the Maine Council of Churches and the Maine People’s Alliance, is similar to one he did about a decade ago.

“Things got better in Lewiston, and I think there has been somewhat of a going backward perhaps. There’s a lot more anti-immigrant, anti-refugee bias,” he says.

Between 2015 and 2016, the Maine Department of Public Safety reported a 5 percent increase in the number of hate crimes in Maine. And since last year, there has been a documented increase in the number of bias-motivated incidents of harassment and violence targeting Muslims, Jews, members of the LGBT community and immigrants across the country.

And so, Wessler says, the way to reduce that is to not only confront stereotypes, but to teach people how to speak up and respectfully intervene when they hear a degrading comment or see a possible bias-motivated incident unfolding.

He uses the example of a woman who intervened on behalf of a 16-year-old Somali girl named Sara.

“She had gone to the laundromat with her mother to wash the clothes. It was winter and people were coming in with dirty snow on their shoes and the floor was not clean,” Wessler says.

The story goes that when Sara turned away to get some more quarters to fill the dryer, a white woman came over, took the clothes out, dumped them on the dirty floor and started kicking them around.

“While she was saying things like, ‘We don’t want you here. Go back to Somalia.’ And then [Sara] felt a tap on her shoulder and and she looked up and saw a white-haired woman. And the woman said: ‘I’m so sorry that woman did that, but she doesn’t represent everybody in Lewiston. Many of us are so glad that you are here,’” Wessler says.

And then the woman helped Sara pick up the clothes to be washed a second time. And while she walked over to her mother to get some more quarters, the woman paid for the load of wash and quietly left the laundromat.

Wessler says that when Sara looked back on what happened, she put her hands to her chest and said, “That woman healed my heart.” It’s a kind of healing that works both ways for members of the groups.

“I have heard the stereotypes. I have not necessarily addressed them. I think my silence says a lot. I’m eager to learn more,” says Claire Hebert of Turner.

Hebert says she’s been forced to consider her failure to speak up for her new Somali neighbors, in part because of a lack of understanding about their culture. But at her first meeting, after hearing examples of some of the disparaging, disrespectful comments made to Somali students at Lewiston High School read aloud, Hebert says she was so upset, she got up and approached the Somali women in her group.

“There was no single word that I could think of that would make up for the words they were hearing, so I knelt down and I bowed to them and I said, ‘Please forgive us.’” she says.

Afterward, Hebert says, the Somali women came up and embraced her one at a time. No translation needed.

Supporters of the initiative, known as Communities Against Hate, hope that the message and the training can be replicated in other parts of Maine.


Somali teenager sets her hopes high for the future



AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – War shattered 14-year-old Manaal’s dreams for the future. Now safe in the Netherlands, with new friends, her spirits are soaring once more.

“I have only been in an airplane once and that is when we arrived here from Somalia,” says Manaal, who fled the country with her family. “In the airplane, I felt butterflies in my stomach the whole time. I saw a movie about a stewardess and she looked so pretty and smart that I decided I want to become a stewardess as well.”

Twenty-eight long years of conflict have left Somalia reeling. The peaceful canals and cafes of Amsterdam, where Manaal found safety in 2014 , have offered the youngster a refuge she could barely have imagined.

Manaal is one of 12 refugee and asylum-seeking children living in Europe who star in a new project that lets their imagination run free.

Titled The Dream Diaries, the project sees the young refugees and asylum-seekers reveal their hopes and dreams from the safety of their new homes in Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
“In the airplane, I felt butterflies in my stomach
the whole time.”

The series was produced by Humans of Amsterdam photographer Debra Barraud, her colleague Benjamin Heertje, Dutch graphic designer Annegien Schilling, filmmaker Kris Pouw and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

In it, Manaal dreams of becoming an air stewardess. A portrait shows her sitting on the wing of an airplane, soaring through a picturesque evening sky.

After 5 long years of separation from her father, who was the first to flee to Europe in a desperate bid to find a better life for his family, air travel means more to Manaal than most.

“When we arrived at the airport, I finally saw my dad again,” she tells The Dream Diaries team. “So I ran up to him and hugged him really tight.”
“When children flee their home countries, they leave everything behind, except their hopes and dreams,” says co-creator Debra Barraud, whose Humans of Amsterdam photography project has over 400,000 Facebook followers. “Through the project we saw the strength of these children and how with the right support they can achieve anything.”

Audiences are being encouraged to stand #WithRefugees by signing UNHCR’s global petition, which asks decision makers to grant refugees safety, education and opportunities – turning their dreams into reality. You can follow The Dream Diaries series via Humans of Amsterdam, Fetching Tigerss and UNHCR’s social accounts.

“My dream is to be a flight attendant,” says Manaal, who will never forget the elation of her first flight – to safety. “I want to be able to travel, see Paris and have butterflies in my stomach. I want to see the entire world.”

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Maine’s 1st Somali police officer busted at Mass. concert



LA TIMES — Maine’s first Somali police officer is on paid leave during an investigation after her arrest over the weekend in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Worcester police charged Zahra Munye Abu, of Portland, with several misdemeanors including assault and battery, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.

Police say the 26-year-old caused a disturbance at a Ja Rule and Ashanti concert at the Palladium Nightclub. She was arrested Saturday night, and posted bail early Sunday.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck confirmed Abu’s arrest, but declined further comment.

Abu was born in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to Maine. She graduated from the University of Southern Maine and became a police officer in 2016. The Associated Press could not locate a phone number for her, and it’s unclear if she has a lawyer.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Portland police officer whose hiring made history is put on leave after arrest in Massachusetts



PRESS HERALD — Zahra Munye Abu, the first Somali immigrant to serve on the city’s force, is charged in Worcester with five misdemeanors, including assault.

A 24-year-old Portland police officer has been charged with five misdemeanors, including assault and battery, after being arrested Saturday night at a concert venue in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Worcester police said Zahra Munye Abu, of Portland, is also facing charges of trespassing, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace.

Abu caused a disturbance while attending a Ja Rule and Ashanti concert at the Palladium Nightclub on Main Street, said Worcester police Sgt. Kerry F. Hazelhurst.

“The nightclub was hosting several live musical acts,” Hazelhurst said in an email. “She was (given) several opportunities to leave and refused. Eventually she was placed under arrest.”

Worcester police would not provide more details about the incident, and members of Abu’s family declined to comment when contacted by phone at their home.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Abu has been placed on administrative leave with pay pending a review of the matter.

“The Portland Police Department was notified late Saturday night of the arrest of Police Officer Zahra Abu in Worcester, Massachusetts,” Sauschuck said in an email. “This issue will be dealt with as a personnel matter from this point forward, so I will have no further comment.”

Chris Besaw, the Palladium general manager, declined to comment about the arrest or what occurred before local police became involved.

Abu was bailed out of jail at 1 a.m. Sunday, Hazelhurst said. He did not know the bail amount. She is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday in Worcester District Court.

Abu is a high-profile member of the Portland police force because she is the first member of Maine’s Somali immigrant community to become a police officer in Maine.

She was born to Somali parents in a Kenyan refugee camp and has lived in Portland since she was 2 years old. She graduated from Deering High School in Portland and studied criminal justice and women-and-gender issues at the University of Southern Maine.

If convicted, Abu faces a maximum penalty of up to 2½ years in a county jail on the assault and battery and the resisting arrest charges. Each of the other charges include less severe maximum penalties.

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