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Business and Economy

Maine's Newest Entrepreneurs Thriving, Despite Obstacles

LEWISTON, Maine - All this week, immigrants and refugees around the world have been observing celebrations in honor of World Refugee Day this Saturday. It's a day to honor the courage, struggles and contributions of more than 15 million refugees displaced by war and persecution. Thousands of them have come to Maine to rebuild their lives. And on Tuesday night in Lewiston several of them opened the doors of their businesses in the place they now call home.

The first thing Hussein Ahmed wants you to know about immigrants and refugees is that, contrary to what you might hear, they are not a burden. Rather, he says, they are an asset. All you have to do is look around the city of Lewiston.

"We have our footprints in our schools," he says. "We have in the workforce, in the home ownership. We have in the downtown businesses that are thriving, and we are part of that. We are, really, the face of our community."

It's a community that now includes about 6,000 refugees from Somalia and other parts of Africa who arrived more than a decade ago in the Lewiston-Auburn area. In Lewiston, an entire city block on both sides of a formerly empty street is now home to Somali-owned businesses, such as Ahmed's store, the Global Halal Market.

Ahmed employs several workers and sells a variety of products including milk, soda, tortillas and dates - something for everyone, he says. "We want the larger community to feel very safe in our stores and at least carry a product that is reflective of the community we have in Lewiston-Auburn," he says.

Like so many refugees, Ahmed says he arrived in the United States with no money and speaking very little English. But he says he worked hard to learn the language, got a job at a call center, despite his heavy accent, and eventually went to college. He saved his money and now owns property and runs a business.

Down the street, it's the same story for Shukri Abasheikh who came to Lewiston in 2002. "Why I open a store is, first of all, I like (to) become a success and self-employed (sic). And I don't want to take welfare. Always my dream is to open a store."

Abasheikh arrived here with eight children, speaking no English. Her first job was as a janitor at Lewiston High School, and she says she liked it - a lot. "I clean floor, bathroom. I am happy because I need always my own money. I don't want to sleep and take money."

For a few years Abasheikh says she did turn to goverment assistance. But she also found jobs at L.L. Bean and at the Salvation Army Thrift Store. She says she took adult education courses to improve her English. And in 2006 she opened the Mogadishu Store, where she sells everything from goat and camel meat to spices and clothes.

Abasheikh got help from Coastal Enterprises Inc's SmartStart program which helps immigrants and refugees write business plans and obtain financing. John Scribner is the program's director.

"We've worked with more than 220 individuals just in the Lewiston area who are looking to start or expand," Scribner says. "I see the energy, the drive, the passion they bring to their work ethic, to their entreprenurial skills and that's a great thing for Maine."

Diane Morin, a resident of Lewiston, says she plans to frequent the Somali-owned businesses more often now that she's sampled some of the food and met the owners.
"I had heard negative things when they first came here - that they didn't want us in their stores - and I found that false. I was welcomed and they were very friendly."

Hussein Ahmed is grateful for the support. That, he says, is what makes the community stronger.