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Maine Filmmaker Tells Story of Somali Bantu Farmers of Lewiston
04/01/2011   Reported By: Tom Porter

The first ever Lewiston-Auburn film festival is being held tomorrow. The event will feature 80 movies from more than a dozen states and 15 countries.  There's a strong home-grown element as well though:  Twenty-six of the films being screened are made in Maine, including the latest documentary from New York-based producer Amy Brown, who was born and raised in Maine.  "There is My Home" tells the story of the Bantu farmers of Somalia who came to live in Lewiston, through the eyes of two women.

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Maine Filmmaker Tells Story of Somali Bantu Farmer
Originally Aired: 4/1/2011 5:30 PM
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Hawa Ibrahim came to live in Lewiston, Maine in 2005. She came here to farm. In her native Somalia, she farmed, and as a minority Bantu from the south of the country, found herself caught up in a bloody civil war in the 1990s.

"People were hunting each other like animals. They killed each other--that's why I left,"
she says in Amy Brown's new documentary, "There Is My Home."

Hawa is among the 5,000 or so Somalis now living in Lewiston, indelibly changing the character of the one-time Franco-American mill town.  Brown (below left), who grew up in nearby Freeport, says her fascination with Lewiston began before any Somalis began arriving.

"I graduated from high school in 1993 and at that time Lewiston was really, my memories of it were, as a ghost town. I remember driving by the warehouses and trying to imagine what it might have been before many of the mills and factories started closing down," she says.
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For many Bantus, Lewiston was not their first port of call in the U.S.  They were originally sent to very urbanized, low-income neighborhoods in cities like Dallas and Atlanta, says Brown, where many of them, who were illiterate and uneducated and knew only how to farm, felt lost.

But with the help of the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project, or NASAP, they were moved to Maine, where land was given to them.  Portland-based NASAP aims to help immigrant and refugee farmers build successful businesses.

For the Bantu farmers of central Maine, this gives them the opportunity to grow and sell vegetables from their homeland:  In addition to the tomatoes, cucumbers and pumpkins normally seen at farmers markets in the summer, more exotic fare is also on offer, explains Amy Carrington from NASAP.

"There are a variety of other vegetables that they grow for farmers markets:  They grow okra, which is an African crop and used more widely in the south, and a crop called molokhia--it's a green that's very nutritious and it's similar to okra in that it will thicken the food, which is good for the winter in Maine."

Amy Brown, who first picked up a movie camera when she was a child, says it was the work being done by NASAP, that inspired the documentary. "I saw an opportunity to enter the lives of some of the Somali Bantu farmers from the perspective of empowerment," she says.

Film Excerpt:  "Just three months this field lay buried under a thick blanket of snow. Now it's summer in Maine, and despite the drowning rainfall, young carrots, arugula, and green beans poke through the wet soil."

"My film profiles two women, Hawa Ibrahim and Betula Ishmael, and they're both amazing women," Brown says. Before coming to Maine six years ago, Betula was originally resettled in Baltimore, says Brown, where she really struggled to adjust.

"She had to learn the bus schedules, she had to learn how to pay her rent, to pay bills for the first time in her life, and this is all without speaking English and not knowing how to write," Brown says.

As well as trying to cope with a new language and culture, the Somalis also encountered some hostility from Mainers, who felt threatened by thousands of new arrivals and the pressure they would put on the jobs market and the welfare system.

This hit the national headlines in 2002 when the mayor of Lewiston wrote an open letter to the Somali community urging them to stop growing in size because of the pressure on the town's resources.  While some hostility remains towards Lewiston's Somali community--indeed Hawa Ibrahim still gets verbally harrassed by a woman in her neighborhood--Brown prefers to tell a different story.  "And that story is what it means to be a new American trying to make it," she says.
 
It is also a story, she says, about how most Mainers have embraced the arrival of new cultures, traditions and races.

Film Excerpt:  "I'm Judy Weber, I live in Auburn, I've lived there 50 years. I come over two mornings a week and tutor some of the most remarkable people I've ever met. Their enthusiasm and their hard work, their generosity, and their affection, just pulls you in."

"One of the biggest things I learned making this movie is what a rich, diverse community Maine is," Brown says. "I'm really thrilled that my film is debuting at the Lewiston-Auburn film festival, the same place where the filming took place."

Brown hopes the film will both teach the community at large more about their new neighbors from Africa, and encourage them to develop a taste for more exotic vegetables.

"There Is My Home: Somali Bantu Farmers of Lewiston, Maine" is being screened at 2:45 p.m. tomorrow at the Lewiston Public Library.  For more details on the daylong festival, click here.

 

 

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