On June 16, 2015 the City of Lewiston celebrated World Refugee Day, a global observance held in different cities, states and nations worldwide. I have been fortunate in my role at Spurwink to have been able to participate on the planning committee for World Refugee Day which took place at the Lewiston Public Library. The theme of the evening was honoring local businesses and the economic impact of immigrants and refugees in the community, and included guest speakers, displays of craftsmanship and artisanship, and tours of local businesses owned by immigrants/refugees.
It is a day of celebration that holds much significance both locally and worldwide. The number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people. Over the past 5 years, Maine has become home to an estimated 2,495 refugees and will likely receive 400 refugees to be resettled in Lewiston and Portland during 2015. The City of Portland is also holding events across a week beginning June 13th.
On the day of the event being held in Lewiston, I will have quietly resigned from my position at Spurwink to move with my husband to Cape Cod, Massachusetts to honor his commitment to the United States Coast Guard. It will be the first time in my life that I will be living outside of the state of Maine for more than a few months at a time. In some ways, my world view has been quite small having always studied, worked and lived within a 50 mile radius of Lewiston.
Yet, within this geographically small bubble, I have had the pleasure and honor of being exposed to many diverse cultures, and my worldview has been stretched in ways that I never thought possible. As far back as the early 2000s when I was a student at Bates College, I was intellectually aware of the importance of what was going on around me with regard to the influx of Somali families in Lewiston and racial tensions that existed. At a culminating point in 2003, there were rallies held at Bates to support the Somali community in response to anti-Semitic groups protesting in the area. I remember the intense conversations around campus and in the classroom, the heightened security, and a combined sense of excitement and fear as thousands of people came to Lewiston to support the Somali community. The rallies were a defining moment for the City of Lewiston and as much as that experience was a significant historical moment, my 20-year old self would never have forecasted that my journey working with and understanding the experiences of immigrants and refugees was just beginning.
After graduating from Bates, I ventured into the social work field and spent most of my fledgling professional years working with children and families in the Southern and Central Maine area. Through a series of circumstances and position changes within Spurwink, I was trained in Trauma Systems Therapy, a unique clinical model that has an adaptation for working with immigrant and refugee children and families. As a supervisor in this program, I was not only hearing stories second-hand, but also was working directly with families myself. Through this program, our clinical teams worked with families whom experienced horrific and unimaginable traumas, yet, somehow found their way to persevere in Lewiston, Maine. I was hearing stories that inspired me, moved me, and filled me with hope. It also opened up opportunities to truly experience the incredible culture and diversity that exists right here in Lewiston.
In the past 3 years, I have been welcomed into the homes of immigrant and refugee families. I have sat on the most beautiful, hand-woven rugs and filled my belly with Sambuca and Somali tea while listening to the stories of these brave children and their families. I have learned about their journeys to America and the many years of waiting for their American dream. I have talked about family, religion, education, love, marriage, birth, and death and explored the similarities between my perception of American culture and each family’s individual culture. Last year, I had an opportunity to travel to Minneapolis, Minnesota to immerse myself in the Trauma Systems Therapy clinical model. While traveling, I had the chance to shop at a Somali mall, peruse the shops, talk with the shop owners, and buy beautiful and colorful scarves. I have also had the fortune of shopping on Lisbon Street, right here in Lewiston, where our local store owners sell everything from African spices, authentic food, and clothing. Most importantly, I have met the most kind and inspiring people and spent hours upon hours listening and learning from community members that have touched my heart (I am now so fortunate to call many of them my friends).
On June 16th, I drove from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Lewiston, Maine to attend the World Refugee Day events. It is a small distance to travel in order to celebrate the most inspiring, resilient and fun people I have ever had the honor of meeting. As my personal life and professional career take me outside of my comfort zone in the Lewiston bubble, I will be able to wrap around me the scarves that I bought along my journey for comfort and will think of the hope, resilience and strength of the immigrant and refugee children and families that I have had the joy of knowing.
Libby M. Steele, LCSW | Associate Regional Director, Outpatient and Community Services – Western Region