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"The Letter": An Introduction to the Somali Experience

The following reflection was written by the 2011 - 2012 CHANCE Leadership Team. CHANCE (Cedar-Humphrey Action for Neighborhood Collaborative Engagement) is a student initiative supported by CIL.

Its main goal is to strengthen the interdependent relationship between Cedar Riverside residents and business owners and the University of Minnesota through civic engagement programming that builds the capacity of all of us, as neighbors, to advance a shared vision.

One way neighborhood residents and UMN students achieve this goal is by partnering in hosting an East African Neighborhood Series of events focused on creating greater cultural awareness of the East African community and providing opportunities for cross-cultural learning and engagement for University students, faculty and staff within the Cedar Riverside neighborhood.

The reflection below came from the January East African Neighborhood Series event. The February event is scheduled for this Wednesday, February 22nd, from 3 - 5 pm at 1929 S. 5th Street (Second floor annex in the African Development Center). Co-hosted by the Somali American Education Program (SAEP) and CHANCE, this event will include a free Somali language lesson!

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An intense juxtaposition of love and hate:
Reflection on
A LETTER TO THE SOMALI COMMUNITY FROM MAYOR RAYMOND OF LEWISTON, MAINE

October 1, 2002

For some number of months, I have observed the continued movement of a substantial number of Somalis into the downtown area of our Community.

This large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all. The Somali community must exercise some discipline and reduce the stress on our limited finances and our generosity.

Only with your help will we be successful in the future-please pass the word: We have been overwhelmed and have responded valiantly. Now we need breathing room. Our city is maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally.

I look forward to your cooperation.
Laurier T. Raymond, Jr.

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The passages above were taken from a longer, open letter written by Mayor Raymond of Lewiston, Maine in 2002 to the 1,100 new Somali residents of the town. The publishing of this letter led to further conflict and what one source has claimed a "firestorm of controversy." These events inspired Ziad H. Hamzeh to film the documentary "The Letter," which we played for our first East African Neighbors Series event.

On Wednesday, January 25th, Humphrey Center classroom 60 was filled with people, pizza, and many sounds of disbelief and gasping from the audience. Following this intense documentary was a brief Skype interview and discussion with Abdirazak Mahboub, the current Emerging Markets Manager for Greater Minnesota at the African Development Center located in Wilmar, Minnesota. Abdirazak, also known as Zack, was living in Lewiston, Maine at the time of these events and had a large presence in the documentary.

This 80 minute documentary focuses on the relationships between the Somali immigrants and native residents of Lewiston before and after Mayor Raymond's letter. "The Letter" also chronicles the racism and discrimination Somalis experienced. The media often referred to the influx of Somali immigrants to Lewiston as the "Somali Invasion."

Awarded Best Documentary at the 2004 Boston International Film Festival, "The Letter" can be admired for its film making merits as it juxtaposes the intense emotions, bringing the audience along on a roller coaster of emotions. The film also allows viewers to witness the existence of extreme racism and prejudice that still exists in our society. "The Letter" is a small introduction to the Somali experience, racism, immigration, and so much more.

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