Shelf Life

A flower shop in Maine roots for newly arrived refugees

Bridget Bodnar and Kimberly Adams Dec 13, 2019
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Jamilo Maalim, on the phone, with her daughter Aaliyah and friend Binto at Mogadishu Store in Lewiston. Amy Toensing
Shelf Life

A flower shop in Maine roots for newly arrived refugees

Bridget Bodnar and Kimberly Adams Dec 13, 2019
Jamilo Maalim, on the phone, with her daughter Aaliyah and friend Binto at Mogadishu Store in Lewiston. Amy Toensing
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The following is an excerpt from “Home Now: How 6000 Refugees Transformed an American Town” by Cynthia Anderson, about what happened when Somali and Congolese refugees relocated to Lewiston, a former mill town in Maine.

For some in Lewiston, the kinship they feel with Muslim neighbors and colleagues started out as wariness. The south end of Lisbon Street holds most of the Somali-owned shops. Banks, law offices, and restaurants occupy the northern blocks. Dube’s Flower Shop sits in between. Inside, it could be 1980 or 2020. Deb and Skip Girouard intend it that way. Deb’s been making a version of that daisy-dotted get-well arrangement for a quarter of a century. The air smells good, of plant respiration and flowers. A wedding, a birth, a funeral, wedding, birth, funeral, weddingbirthfuneral. The Girouards will keep helping to mark occasions until they decide to stop.

Eighteen years ago, when the first Somalis showed up, Deb and Skip didn’t know what to think. They were not overjoyed. The city had been through so much already. Dube’s was doing okay, but Deb and Skip were far from rich.

A Somali store opened next door—the now-familiar assortment of fabrics and foodstuffs. Men in macawis started congregating outside on the sidewalk. They weren’t unfriendly, but they weren’t that warm. Deb felt intimidated, coming and going from her shop. She told Skip. Skip avoids confrontation. He thought a long while about what to do. Weeks passed. Deb still felt unhappy. Both worried their customers might stop coming.

Finally Skip went over to talk with the men and the storeowner. “What happened next,” Deb says, “what happened next was they listened to Skip.”

Skip: “They were respectful and polite.”

The men stopped gathering on the sidewalk. “A big relief,” Deb says. Over time, the Girouards became friendly with the storeowner. A few Somalis came into the flower shop to buy things. Then a few more. A woman ordered floral arrangements for her daughter’s wedding.

A year passed. Skip started carrying slips of paper in his wallet, useful phrases in Somali. He still has them, dog-eared now. Good Morning—Subax wanaagsan. How are you?—Iska waren . . .

Men share a meal at Masjidul Salaam Mosque in Lewiston. (Photo by Amy Toensing)
 

“Skip was interested in their culture,” Deb says. She’s reserved. He’s more outgoing. Over time, Skip got close with two young Somali guys. They stop in with friends sometimes to chat and ask for advice about, say, buying a car or renting a tux.

“Things are pretty good,” Skip says of his and Deb’s relations with the newcomers now, and of the city’s overall. “It did take a while to adjust,” he says, the same way it did with earlier immigrants. Skip is French Canadian—he grew up hearing stories about families like his coming down from Quebec. The resistance they encountered, the discrimination.

There’s one noticeable difference though, Skip says. “Work.”

Deb rolls her eyes. He’s conservative, she not so much. “Skip,” she says.

“No, listen. The French Canadians would move in one day and start work the next. That was just what they did.”

“Things were different then, Skip. Lots of jobs, for one thing. And don’t forget, they weren’t refugees,” Deb says.

“These young Somali guys come in, I tell them listen, my grandfather came from Canada, and right away he got a job,” Skip says. “Back then, it was ‘If you can walk, you can work.’ Every able-bodied person should work. I could take someone down right now and get them a job at Burger King.”

Deb: “Burger King doesn’t pay a living wage. Most of the mill jobs did.”

Skip pauses. “That’s true,” he says. He has other opinions. He wishes, for instance, that women would remove their hijabs when not in the mosque so they wouldn’t stand out so much.

Deb reminds him most women choose to cover their head. It’s their right, she says.

Skip nods, smiles wryly. He and Deb differ on some things, but they let it go. He thinks it should be that way with the newcomers and longtime residents. Everyone’s neighbors now, so they need to get along.

Deb and Skip have changed. A Somali café owner who’s since moved used to come in a lot and buy flowers. He and Deb would chat. One day at a meeting of local business owners, he said, I go into the flower lady’s shop, but she’s never come to my restaurant.

“He was right. I never had,” Deb says. She went in a few days later and ordered food.

“Delicious,” she says. “I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner.”

“You weren’t ready,” Skip says.

Deb nods. “You have to be ready.”

This article has been excerpted from “Home Now: How 6000 Refugees Transformed an American Townby Cynthia Anderson. Copyright © 2019. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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