Stephen M. Schwartz, the U.S. ambassador to Somalia, will visit Lewiston on April 6, a trip that officials say is symbolic of the city’s positive reputation in immigrant integration.
The visit comes during a significant phase in U.S.-Somali relations. When appointed by President Barack Obama in 2016, Schwartz was the first ambassador to Somalia in 25 years.
According to Assistant City Administrator Phil Nadeau, the visit by Schwartz so soon after his appointment is significant.
“It’s wonderful that he’s taking the time to come here,” Nadeau said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of fascinating components to this.”
Nadeau said Charles Dow, a U.S. District Court judge in Lewiston, has been a key factor in scheduling the visit.
Dow said Tuesday that he helped set up the visit through contact with a friend at the U.S. Department of State, but insisted the embassy initiated coming to Lewiston.
“It’s nice that he thought to come to Lewiston so early in his tenure,” Dow said.
Dow said organizers want Schwartz to experience “the work that the Somali community has done on its own, becoming a fundamental part of the community in Lewiston,” he said.
When Schwartz was appointed last year, it was seen as a landmark in U.S.-Somali relations. The U.S. Embassy in Somalia was closed in 1991 because of violent political upheaval, and even today operates out of Nairobi, Kenya. Schwartz was officially sworn-in on June 27, 2016.
Since that time, Nadeau and Dow said, Schwartz has been connecting with cities throughout the United States that have large Somali “diasporas.” The term is used to describe the dispersion of any people from their original homeland.
Schwartz has made similar visits to Columbus, Ohio, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. The two cities represent the top two Somali diasporas by population in the country.
Nadeau said Lewiston also qualifies as one of the top communities for Somali resettlement, especially in terms of the ratio to total population.
“It’s in that upper tier of communities relative to size,” he said.
Because of the numbers, and the city’s work — and perceived success — since 2001 on refugee programs, Lewiston has received worldwide attention. Nadeau, who is retiring from Lewiston government in June, has served as the unofficial city leader on immigrant relations.
“We’ve been a global story for quite awhile,” he said of Lewiston.
While the April 6 date has been set, Nadeau said organizers, including members of the Immigrant and Refugee Integration and Policy Development Working Group, are still putting together an itinerary for the day.
Nadeau said the most “critically important” goal of the visit will be to engage Schwartz with as many members of the Somali community as possible.
He said it will most likely include a walking tour of downtown, especially a string of Somali-owned businesses on Lisbon Street, and a gathering of the community at Callahan Hall.
Nadeau said the trip may also include discussions with Lewiston police officials, something that has also been done in other U.S. cities. He said Somalia is further developing its police force.
Schwartz’s trip to Lewiston also comes during a time of uncertainty for many Somali immigrants. The nation is one of six included in President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban, which halts immigration and refugee programs from the majority-Muslim countries.
Schwartz was in Somalia in February following the election of the country’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. The visit made headlines for its diplomatic significance but also for Schwartz’s gift to the new president: a hat stating “Make Somalia Great Again,” in reference to Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan.
Nadeau expects the travel ban issue to be part of the discussion on April 6.
“It’s raising lots of questions,” he said. “There will be plenty to talk about.”
Kristen Cloutier, Lewiston City Council president and chairwoman of the city’s immigrant working group, said in an email Tuesday that Schwartz’s visit “demonstrates and affirms support for our Somali neighbors and for the work that Lewiston, its elected officials, and its residents have done over the past several years to integrate our immigrant and refugee population into our community.”
“We have much work left to do, but we make progress every day,” she said, “And I believe that Lewiston continues to set a great example for how to bridge cultural divides through inclusivity and partnership.”
Cloutier said three leaders in the Somali community — Fowsia Musse, Abdifatah Ahmed and Jama Mohamed — have agreed to assist with the visit.
“We’re trying to do what we can to have his time here be as productive for him and the Somali community as we can make it,” Nadeau said.
Schwartz, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., has had a long diplomatic career. Prior to being named the envoy to Somalia, Schwartz served as the director of the Office for Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island Affairs in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He also has years of experience in Africa.