Over the past four years, roughly forty-five Iraqi families have settled in Augusta, Maine, together with three families from Syria and three from Afghanistan. The influx of refugees was noticeable and, it turned out, not entirely welcome. Just days after President Trump signed his January executive order restricting travel from seven
Muslim-majority nations, and temporarily halting refugee resettlement, fliers appeared on driveways and porches in the neighborhood where the newcomers live. Declaring a “Neighborhood Watch,” they included an image of a hooded figure in a Ku Klux Klan robe and the slogan “You can sleep tonight knowing the Klan is awake.”
“We were stunned and not happy,” recalled Augusta Mayor Dave Rollins. A native of the city, Rollins is descended from French Canadian immigrants who faced discrimination when they arrived more than a century ago. He wanted to make sure today’s newcomers have a more positive experience. But how? Rollins found part of his answer with the new Refugees in Towns project, led by Karen Jacobsen, the Henry J. Leir Professor in Global Migration at the Fletcher School and director of the Refugees and Forced Migration Program at the Feinstein International Center. When Rollins connected with Jacobsen and students from the Fletcher School, “it was like a piece of heaven fell in our lap,” he said.
Jacobsen started the project to help towns and urban neighborhoods become “immigrant- and refugee-friendly spaces” that embrace the benefits that refugees bring while addressing the challenges of integrating newcomers. In its inaugural year, Refugees in Towns has funded ten case studies of refugee integration in cities around the world, including Cape Town, Delhi, Tripoli, Hamburg—and Augusta. Early next year, the project plans to host a conference at which New England mayors, urban planners, and volunteer agency workers can share successes and challenges.
Over three months last summer, a team of four Fletcher students and recent alumni conducted the case study in Augusta. Rollins let them stay rent-free in a city-owned cabin by a park and even loaned them his daughter’s old car. In exchange, the group brought all the skills they had gained studying international relations and development to what felt like an unlikely destination: small-town America.
The group, which included Heba El-Hendi, F18, Max McGrath-Horn, F17, and Hania Mumtaz, F18, M22, had a guide in their teammate Anna Ackerman, F17, who grew up in Augusta. Her hunch that the community was divided about welcoming refugees was confirmed by their interviews with local residents. An Augusta service provider told them he looks at refugees as “guilty until proven innocent” of welfare fraud. On the positive side, some schoolteachers said refugees were a pleasure to have in class because they were learning so much, and they and their parents don’t take their education for granted.
The report, based on interviews with thirteen refugees and thirty-seven other residents of Augusta, including local leaders, traces the real impact of resettlement on city services and demonstrates that some fears are exaggerated. Although half of the refugees interviewed were relying on government assistance, the other half were working in business, education, health, and service jobs—two Iraqi families have even opened small stores. Meanwhile, the report notes, one in every three Maine residents is on welfare. There was also a concern about refugees overcrowding apartments in Augusta. While some of the apartments are crowded—and infested with bedbugs, to the chagrin of new arrivals—the Augusta Housing Authority said it has not seen its waiting list grow and does not view the refugees as a drain on resources.
Still, there is a cost to assisting the newcomers. The volunteers who run a local food bank, clothing bank, and toiletries pantry said the number of people using their services climbed from 150 to 358 over the past year, with more than half of those being refugees. In addition, challenges to integration include many refugees’ lack of English language skills and lack of familiarity with the systems they must navigate for everything from registering a child for school to opening a business, the report found. The city’s school department has responded to the influx of students who are learning English by hiring an interpreter, four education techs, and three additional teachers.
Integration is a lengthy process, the researchers found, and would of course be made easier by more funding and additional translators, if those were forthcoming. But increased opportunities for interaction among refugee families and other community members could also help bridge cultural gaps and reduce tensions. Ackerman made that case in July at a meeting with the mayor, other city leaders, and a few refugees. “During our research, we’ve heard a lot of concern about immigrants living on welfare, ‘taking, taking, taking,’” she said. “If you facilitate more one-on-one personal interactions, you might change minds.”
To that end, Ackerman and others in the Fletcher group organized several community events over the summer, such as a bike clinic where they taught locals and newcomers alike how to ride and repair bicycles. The Fletcher group is looking for funding to create a food hub in the downtown, where refugees and other residents could operate food stalls, building community and helping the local economy at the same time. In the meantime, they’re running a pop-up dinner series in various Augusta venues, hosting meals at which refugees share the food of their home countries with longtime Mainers, on the theory that breaking bread together is a great way to start conversations. The mayor recalled one such dinner where he tried unfamiliar foods that were delicious. “It was a whole cultural ‘wow’ event,” he said. “That will bond us forever.”
At a lunch in a waterfront park in July, Iraqi and Syrian families covered a picnic table with homemade delicacies such as dolmas, biryani, cucumber-and-yogurt tzatziki, and meat-filled turnovers, available for a $10 donation. “Another light snack, huh?” joked City Manager Bill Bridgeo as he prepared to fill a plate. Several guests sat with refugees they had just met, discussing favorite foods. At the end of the meal, Mayor Rollins thanked the cooks, then turned to his wife, a local school official, and suggested that they should make food for the next gathering. She laughed, gesturing to the woman beside her, “We already have a baklava bakeoff planned.”
Moudoeih Halwah, a seventeen-year-old Syrian refugee whose family had helped prepare the meal, said they had moved to Augusta just three weeks earlier. He was hoping to get a job like the one he had at a mall in Arizona, where they had lived for the last year and a half. He also said his family was looking for a bigger apartment and a car or van. Asked if people had been welcoming in Maine, he didn’t seem to understand the question. But when it was rephrased—have people in Augusta been friendly or unfriendly?—he paused a moment, then answered, “Both.”