Out of Lewiston, Maine, a Story of Hope for Refugees

The astonishing Blue Devils of Lewiston, Maine won the state high school soccer championships this fall for the very first time. Eighteen of the twenty-five players were refugees and many of the athletes are Muslim. Eight members of the team had been in a Somali refugee camp in Kenya together before coming to Maine.

I grew up in the Lewiston area, where beginning in 2001, thousands of Somali refugees moved into this formerly homogeneous Franco-American and predominantly Catholic city of 36,000. On my father's side, my grandparents and great-grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia and Lithuania who owned a shop on the same block where Somali businesses now thrive; my mother was a Holocaust refugee from Vienna.

A fictional version of Lewiston is the setting for my children's novel, Kiki and Jacques, the story of a Somali refugee girl and a local boy in Maine navigating cultural differences to find common ground and friendship. The book is about ethics and empathy, with a plot involving bullying and a soccer rivalry. When I wrote Kiki and Jacques, I couldn't imagine how timely this story would be. Following the horrendous attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, nothing could be more important than teaching children about our multicultural country and world.

My family found refuge and freedom in Maine, but when the Somalis first arrived, Lewiston's then-mayor infamously penned an open letter asking that further Somali immigration be discouraged. White supremacists came to demonstrate, and in sharp response, concerned civic leaders organized a large and successful rally for diversity and tolerance. This concerted effort paid off; today, Lewiston is a success story, with relatively little strife and vibrant immigrant businesses growing.

I recently spoke on a panel at a national teachers' conference in Minneapolis about Kiki and Jacques and the many faces of realistic fiction. Teachers from around the country told me about the pressing need to address multicultural issues in their classrooms. In today's America, diverse immigrant populations already exist in smaller towns as well as large urban settings. One teacher said she had students from twenty different nationalities in her school. Another teacher, who taught seventh grade, related an incident in which a girl wearing hijab had been taunted after the Paris attacks.

My heart goes out to these immigrant kids and how vulnerable they must feel.

While researching and writing Kiki and Jacques, I met upbeat and inspiring Somali teenagers in Maine who had strong opinions and goals. We talked about topics my own children liked to discuss: friends and fashion, sports and dreams.

One terrific Somali girl came to America as a fifteen year old, never having attended school. Her father wanted her to marry, but she desperately hoped to graduate from high school and become a pilot. At the time we met, this bright and ambitious girl had just received her diploma. After reading Kiki and Jacques, she asked what had inspired me to write about her life.

It was a moment full of emotion, because of course, she was my inspiration -- a brave and determined young woman and other teenagers like her, who had come to America to fulfill their dreams for a better future -- just as my own family had valued America as a land of promise and opportunity.

My daughter always says she likes to imagine herself in whatever book she is reading, and as a writer, this is my small contribution: I believe that if every kid could relate to the story in Kiki and Jacques -- play soccer with a boy named Mohamed and sit next to a girl in school who wears hijab, writes poetry and can kick a ball like nobody's business -- the world would be a better, safer place. Every child should experience, at least through a book, what it feels like to know kids from an entirely different background.

Nearly fifteen years after Somali refugees first came to my childhood home, the atmosphere for immigrants in America has fallen into an abysmal state of distrust and divisive rhetoric -- and yet, the success of the Somalis in Maine offers a narrative of hope.

The most effective means to combat the pull of radical and anti-democratic beliefs is to make refugee and immigrant children feel integrated and welcomed in our schools and communities. Our teachers are on the front lines protecting students from poisonous political vitriol and should be strongly supported with books and materials that help kids understand and embrace our multicultural world.

Those amazing Blue Devils deserve to have their triumphant season celebrated and lauded as an example of America at its best.