Racial incident in Maine town fuels local discussion of issue 2006-02-16 By Jeff Tigchelaar Athens NEWS Writer A mayor's letter that fueled white supremacist movements nationwide and anti-immigrant rallies in Lewiston, Maine, may have actually been for the good, according to an African-American student at OU who lived near the affected community. And the controversy, she added, is something Athens could stand to take a serious look at. "I'm glad he wrote that letter," Selam Gerzher-Alemayo said during a panel discussion Monday night at Scripps Hall following a screening of "The Letter: An American Town and the Somali Invasion." The film documents the controversy that unfolded three years ago when then-Lewiston Mayor Larry Raymond wrote an open letter to the city's Somali refugee community asking them to tell other Somalis not to move to Lewiston. Before the letter, Gerzher-Alemayo said, there was tension - and silence. "But afterward, people started talking," she said. Gerzher-Alemayo, a native Ethiopian and a graduate student in African Studies, attended high school in nearby Portland, Maine, whose African immigrants, she said, have faced issues similar to Lewiston's. But what Gerzher-Alemayo called the "looking down on people" issue is by no means limited to communities dealing with a sudden influx of refugees. "I think we have some major problems in Athens with the race issue," she said. "We just don't talk about them." Gerzher-Alemayo spoke about a recent Alden Library incident in which she and some friends were wishing someone a happy birthday. When a fellow student wanted to know where they were from, they assumed he was genuinely interested in finding out about their culture and tried to get him to guess. But they quickly discovered his true intentions. "He said, 'You're not from America, because in America we don't talk in the library.' He told us to go back to where we came from." Gerzher-Alemayo said the encounter didn't shock her, since she's been in America for years. But some of the international students, she said, found it unsettling. Warm welcomes are a big part of the culture in Africa, Gerzher-Alemayo said, and she's concerned her friends will return home with less-than-impressive stories of how they were received here. "As Americans, we need to set examples. Good examples," she said. Acacia Nikoi, assistant director of OU's African Studies program, said the university has good intentions when it comes to diversity, led by the efforts of OU President Roderick McDavis. "There's genuine desire from the top," Nikoi said. "The problem is getting it to trickle down." Gerzher-Alemayo has some theories in that regard, however. Progress won't be made, she said, until dialogue begins. "You don't see student organizations talking about race (at OU)," she said. "Some people are afraid of speaking up." The way to begin, Gerzher-Alemayo said, is simply to "start talking about it. "You don't need a lot of people. You just need to be committed." Monday night's panel provided an opportunity for the talking to begin, though not all who spoke could say they shared Gerzher-Alemayo's experience. Abdullah Abdinoor, a graduate student in education who hails from Kenya, said he has found Athens to be "very tolerant" - probably due, he said, to the presence of the academic community. "So far I have not had any problems," he said. And the problems in Lewiston eventually subsided. While the Somali population faced intense adversity at the hands of hate groups and locals, many Lewiston residents rallied behind the refugees in the name of peace and diversity. Monday's film screening and panel discussion were sponsored by OU's African Studies, United Campus Ministries and African American Studies organizations.