How Schools Are Rallying Around Portland's Large Refugee Community

PORTLAND, Maine — On a chilly December evening, King Middle School students and their families streamed into Ocean Gateway, a party space with sweeping views of Casco Bay. They had come to celebrate the culmination of a school project on freedom, just as many of the families were getting a taste of liberty themselves.

The students, a number of whom are Muslim immigrants from Somalia, had created posters and written essays that proclaimed their vision of American ideals. Some of their families had fled the war-torn nation that became subject to the ban announced by President Donald Trump in late January for travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations.

In a divisive political climate, public schools are taking on the challenge of helping refugees who feel unsafe in a country that seems increasingly intolerant of them. The students’ work took on an even deeper meaning after a January 27 racially charged assault near Casco Bay High School, which spurred pro-immigrant rallies throughout the city.

“Islam is blamed for terrorism, but Christianity isn’t blamed for radical groups like the KKK,” said eighth-grader Zakaria Ali, 13, a student of Somali heritage who argued in his project that Muslims lose their freedom when Americans equate Islam with terror.

Portland is a progressive coastal city of trendy restaurants and Victorian homes, as well as housing projects and homeless shelters, in one of the whitest states in the country. Its diversity is evident — from the assistant principal at Deering High School, who is a Somali immigrant, to the former student and current math teacher at King Middle School, a Ugandan immigrant, to the Somali restauranteur whose son is studying for his law school entrance exams. Republican governor Paul LePage has said he supports President Trump’s travel ban and has sought to deny government benefits to asylum seekers, but Portland city officials have proclaimed support for their immigrant community.

“It’s a lightning-rod issue,” said Judy Katzel, a spokesperson for Catholic Charities Maine, the agency that resettles refugees in the state. “But welcoming refugees is not a political issue. It’s about people.”

Students said King Middle School feels like a safe haven, but added that the world outside the school building has lately felt more dangerous. They hear their parents talking about being accosted in the street and worrying about relatives abroad who may be affected by the ban. (A federal appeals court has upheld a temporary order blocking the ban, but the Trump administration is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.)

leThe school’s freedom project, which is in its 19th year, is based on President Franklin Roosevelt’s World War II concept of the “four freedoms” that everyone in the world is entitled to enjoy. The students initially explored these concepts — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear — through the oil paintings of the quintessential American painter Norman Rockwell, and then deepened their understanding through individual research projects and field trips. This year in the project, which encompassed social studies, English, math and science, the topic of Islamophobia was popular.

Umulker Ugas, 13, an eighth-grader whose family fled Somalia for Kenya before she was born, wears a hijab and goes to a mosque after school to study the Koran. In her project on freedom of worship, she focused on discrimination against women who wear the hijab in the workplace.

“I feel like it’s not fair,” she said. “Not everyone from the countries they are banning is starting trouble.”

Related: Muslim girls in Trump’s America: ‘I’m not going to cower into fear’

The federal government has resettled about 3 million refugees since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, according to the Pew Research Center. Roughly 44,000 immigrants, including refugees, have made their homes in Maine, according to Catholic Charities Maine. In the 1980s, most refugees were from Vietnam; now the majority come from Africa and the Middle East.

Most Somalis arrived in the United States after 1991, when their government collapsed, civil war broke out and the country faced famine and anarchy. United Nations estimates showed that roughly 150,000 Somali immigrants were living in the United States in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center.

Last year, at Ohio State University, a Somali refugee, apparently inspired by the Islamic State terrorist group, rammed a car into pedestrians and then stabbed people with a butcher knife. The attacker was shot dead within minutes, but his act added to the tension surrounding U.S. refugee communities. 

Katzel said such violence hasn’t affected her work in Maine. “Most people understand that there can be isolated events and tend to not really translate that onto an entire population,” she said.

Islam is blamed for terrorism, but Christianity isn’t blamed for radical groups like the KKK.

In Maine, most Somalis first settled in Portland, the state’s largest city. They then moved north to the Lewiston-Auburn area, where housing is cheaper, said Elizabeth Eames, a Bates College associate professor of anthropology. Population estimates suggest that the Lewiston-Auburn area now has the largest percentage of Somali refugees in the country, with about 8,000 of its 35,000 residents of Somali origin, she said. 

Such an increase in students who need extra services can test a school district. On February 7, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, along with local disability rights groups, released the results of a two-year investigation of the Lewiston schools for violations of federal civil rights and disabilities laws. In a letter to Lewiston Schools Superintendent Bill Webster, the group alleged that students of color, including Somali refugees and students with disabilities, are disciplined more often and are less likely to get the support they need.

Webster defended the school district’s work in meeting the needs of all students. He noted that the ACLU’s data is several years old, and that last year the system’s five-year completion rate for students from immigrant homes was greater than that for students from homes where English is the primary language. He cited a 78 percent rate for immigrants and a 73 percent rate for native English speakers. 

In Portland, in addition to teaching newly arrived students English, school officials reach out to immigrant parents through the system’s Multilingual & Multicultural Center. The center also connects volunteer mentors to students and trains teachers to help children who may have endured trauma. 

The Portland school district currently serves students who speak 60 languages other than English, with Somali and Arabic being the most common, according to Grace Valenzuela, the center’s director. Overall, about 30 percent of the district’s 6,800 students speak a language other than English as their first language. Of those English language learners, almost a third speak Somali, she said.

The immigrant experience is familiar to Portland Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana; he came to America from Cuba in the early 1960s. In an open letter after the Casco Bay High confrontation, Botana affirmed the school system’s commitment to all its students, whether they are immigrants, refugees or native-born Americans. 

On February 6, a little more than a week after the incident, local police charged a white 20-year-old Portland resident with a hate crime and assault, and he pleaded not guilty. He is accused of confronting two Casco Bay students, and brandishing a sharp object after shouting racial slurs to a group of students on the street near the high school. The January 27 incident sparked several rallies and marches in support of the students and against hate. On the following Monday, someone hung pink papers that said “You Are Loved” on the bus shelter in front of the school, near where the incident took place. 

“Our students acted exactly as we would want them to act,” Botana wrote in his open letter. “They exemplified the ideals on which Casco Bay High School was founded and made us all proud.”

Botana’s letter became a political flashpoint in Maine. In it, Botana also criticized President Donald Trump’s travel ban, as well as the president’s intention to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The head of the Maine Republican party accused Botana of using taxpayer money to advocate a political point of view. Botana countered that January’s unsettling local and national events had created a negative climate for immigrant students, and it was his duty as an educator to put them in context.

Related: Schoolchildren “have a lot of questions and a lot of fear” in aftermath of Trump victory

Nimo Saeed, a Somali immigrant who owns the Mini Mogadishu restaurant, said the police had stopped by recently to check on her and offer assistance if she needed it. She hasn’t experienced any problems, she said, but they would likely pale in comparison with what she experienced back in Somalia.

“The American people don’t know what bad is,” she said as she served sweet tea spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. “We’ve been through a Civil War, we know what bad is.”

But Casco Bay High senior Samira Ahmed, 17, who came to the United States with her Somali family when she was only seven and has thrived in Portland, said the alleged assault burst the protective bubble of the school where she has always felt accepted. “It showed the reality of what is happening in the U.S.,” she said.

The American people don’t know what bad is. We’ve been through a Civil War, we know what bad is.

Elizabeth Szatkowski and Sarah Compton, members of the Casco Bay High School parent advisory group, strongly support the multicultural environment in Portland schools.

“It has given my daughters the opportunity to hear from other people in authentic ways,” said Szatkowski, whose older daughter is in college and whose younger daughter is a junior at the high school. “It’s not just an add on. It’s part of the fabric of their education.”

Compton, who has two sons at the school and is the advisory group’s president, said, “Most of my older son’s friends are Muslim. It’s a world he wouldn’t have been exposed to because our day-to-day community is not that diverse.”

Both women, who are white, said one of the biggest challenges has been integrating parents from other cultures into the school’s parent community. Language is a barrier, and also a sense that schools should take care of school life, while parents take care of home life.

“We had a group of parents who reached out to multilingual parents to come to school activities and it was difficult,” said Szatkowski, a clinical social worker who runs programs for the mentally ill. “It’s such a …. Western way of being involved in the school.” 

Across town, at Deering High School, where several student council co-presidents are Muslim immigrants, a few hundred students rallied on the school sidewalk on a recent Friday afternoon. They called it a “Stand of Solidarity” with Casco Bay students and immigrants in general. They held posters that read: “A country built by immigrants should stand tall by its immigrants” and “Spread Love, Not Hate.” Drivers honked their horns in support as they passed in their cars. On the opposite side of the street, mothers in hijabs stood smiling, holding signs of their own: “No Hate, No Fear, No Wall, No Ban” and “Immigrants are Great Neighbors.”

Related: Student voices: A daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants and ‘heartbroken’ by the Muslim travel ban

Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed, Deering’s assistant principal, watched but did not participate. Earlier, in an interview, with a mixture of pride and amazement, he told the story of his own refugee experience. He escaped poverty in Mogadishu, Somalia, attended university in Pakistan and eventually came to America, where he started out as an interpreter in the Portland schools. A principal noticed his teaching talent and encouraged him to pursue a degree in education. He now has a family, a doctorate and a high-profile job.

It takes courage for an immigrant to put down roots in an unfamiliar place, Ahmed said, just as it takes courage for a community to open its doors to the strangers in their midst. Schools are on the frontline of this march toward integration and acceptance as they welcome students to life in America. Those children can then help their parents navigate this new world.

But both the community and the immigrant must adapt, Ahmed said. “It’s a two-way street.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education and immigration.


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