Organizations across the country have long played a role in confronting and responding to hate that targets their communities. One such organization, Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services (MEIRS) was created in 2008 by members of the very community it serves. In 2008, a group of young Somalis in Lewiston, Maine recognized a desperate need to help refugee youth in their community. Starting out of a van that held athletic equipment, this group of community members organized to help recently resettled refugee youth become empowered members of their new community. MEIRS grew from a van holding athletic equipment to a nonprofit organization serving individuals of 13 different nationalities across Maine, providing youth programs, English as a second language classes, citizenship classes, and employment services and parenting program to help parents adjust to a new culture and community. By offering services to immigrant and refugee communities, MEIRS is building a strong support network for individuals that may otherwise feel targeted and discriminated against.
MEIRS saw many of their clients directly experiencing the hate and bigotry that contributed to the national surge in hate incidents. “Many of our clients were fearful and afraid,” said Executive Director Rilwan Osman, “a majority of the individuals MEIRS served are black Muslim immigrants and refugees.” She continued, “We had numerous threats towards community members who were told to ‘go back to your country’ or ‘take off your scarf,’ but these hateful comments didn’t just start during the 2016 election cycle – we’ve heard these before.”
To combat the hate that community members in Lewiston, Maine experienced, MEIRs built a relationship with local law enforcement. They invite police officers to community meetings to hear directly from affected individuals and vice versa. MEIRS recently launched their first anti-bullying and anti-hate campaign called “Unite As One, Maine Communities Against Hate,” where they had over 2,000 individuals sign a pledge to stop hate and bullying in their communities and shared anti-hate messages in Portland, Lewiston, and Auburn, Maine. They launched the “Maine Communities Against Hate” initiative on their website where they created a page that offers information on how to report a hate or bullying incident, and offers a phone line in English, Somali, and Arabic that gives communities information on how to report hate in their own language.
MEIRS is making an impact in immigrant communities and beyond– by sharing messages of inclusion and educating local communities in creative and engaging ways. For example, they distribute multi-cultural coloring books to local hospitals and clinics, host cultural dance shows, provide information sessions open to all communities, and identify other ways to showcase the diverse communities that make up Maine.
As Rilwan Osman said in closing, “We are hopeful that we will have communities that learn from one another, respect one another regardless of their national origin, religion, race or immigration status, but this will only happen if both immigrant and refugees and nonimmigrant and refugees come together and learn from one another.”
To learn more about Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services, visit www.meris.org.