KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
There's an old French saying. Lose your language, lose your faith. In Maine, both are being revived. Several hundred French-speaking African immigrants have come to the state over the last decade. And they're collecting with local French speakers in ways that neither group expected. Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio reports.
SUSAN SHARON: In Lewiston, Maine, more people than ever are showing up at the Franco Center for Le Rencontre, a monthly luncheon that encourages French conversation.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Over loudspeaker, speaking French).
SHARON: Of the 200 people who come to break bread together, most are Lewiston natives who are older and white, but these days, you'll also find black immigrants from Africa gathered around the luncheon tables. They're French speakers who want to improve their English and get to know their new neighbors. And that interest has also spurred creation of local French clubs that meet several times a week.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking French).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking French).
SHARON: It's the latest chapter in the story of French Canadian immigrants whose labor powered mill towns around New England but whose children and grandchildren felt the sting of discrimination. Many were discouraged from speaking French as late as the 1960s.
CECILE THORNTON: A lot of the dumb Frenchmen jokes were going around back then. And so I worked really hard actually to lose my Franco accent.
SHARON: Cecile Thornton of Lewiston says as a teenager, she felt embarrassed, even ashamed of her French Canadian heritage. Now 61, she says it's a different story. In French club, Thornton and other Lewiston locals regularly swap stories with refugees and asylum seekers from Burundi, Rwanda and Congo. On this day, Julie Mushiya of Kinshasa tells Thornton and others about health care in her country.
JULIE MUSHIYA: (Over loudspeaker, speaking French).
SHARON: And Thornton has become close with the new Mainers, so close that in January, she attended a friend's wedding in Rwanda. The French clubs have also become de facto support groups. Many of the African immigrants are anxious about the climate for refugees in the U.S. Nineteen-year-old Bright Lukusa is an asylum seeker from Congo.
BRIGHT LUKUSA: We definitely do talk about the politics. And, you know, the Americans try to comfort us and tell us, you know, hopefully it's going to be OK. And I choose to believe.
SHARON: There have always been pockets of French speakers in Maine, but Bates College French professor Mary Rice-DeFosse says the new immigrants have made that skill useful.
MARY RICE-DEFOSSE: They're not fluent in English, and they need to speak French. And so these Franco Americans who can speak French suddenly can find a public function for their French language.
SHARON: DeFosse says it's also a way of validating the French Canadians who made history here and welcoming a new wave of French speakers, this time from Africa. For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Lewiston, Maine.
(SOUNDBITE OF CIRCLES AROUND THE SUN SONG, "GILBERT'S GROOVE")
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