23-Year-Old Somali Immigrant Wins Office In Lewiston, Maine

Voting in NYC (Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo)

PORTLAND, Maine (VosiZNeias) — Lewiston, which is the second-largest city in the state of Maine, has elected a Somali American to its city council following a campaign marred by racist attacks and social media threats.

Safiya Khalid, a 23-year-old immigrant from Somalia, soundly defeated a fellow Democrat on Tuesday for a seat on the Lewiston City Council, garnering nearly 70% of the vote to become possibly the youngest ever member of the city council and the first Somali immigrant.

Shrugging off attacks on her skin color and faith, Khalid declared that “community organizers beat internet trolls.”

“I worked really hard. I knocked on thousands of doors. That’s what paid off,” Khalid told The Associated Press(AP) in an interview Tuesday.

Despite being the whitest state in the US, Maine is home to a growing population of Africans who’ve fled their homeland. First- and second-generation candidates from four African countries — Somalia, Congo, Ghana and Nigeria — won seats on city councils and school committees across the state, continuing an established trend, said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.

“There’s been a push for us to have bigger representation in office in the towns,” she said. “That’s where the decisions are made. If we’re not in those offices, then someone is going to make the decisions for us.”

Khalid was the target of ugly personal attacks online before the election. Someone said she should be stoned, while others told her to go back to Somalia. Another shared her home address on a Facebook group. Some of the attacks drove her to tears.

“I just couldn’t take it,” Khalid told The Washington Post Tuesday night. “I was crying so bad. My eyes were completely red.”

However Khalid responded by deleting her Facebook account, deactivating her Twitter account and hitting the streets, knocking on doors whenever she wasn’t working at her job as a caseworker.

Since the Facebook attacks on Khalid stemmed from out of state, and Maine locals generally don’t like outsiders meddling in their affairs, the trolling seemed to backfire and give Khalid an advantage over her rivals.

Somalis began moving to Lewiston two decades ago in search of affordable housing after many settled in Portland, 36 miles away. The city of 36,000 is now home to more than 5,000 Africans.

Khalid was born in Somalia and remembers living in a refugee camp before coming to the United States. As a city councilor, she intends to ensure that there’s affordable housing which is also free from lead contamination,  a nagging problem in the city’s older housing stock. She wants to boost aging infrastructure, bring in investment, and support local businesses, as well as boosting local schools.

“When I came here, I didn’t know how to write my name or speak any word of English. I am who I am because of public education. Our children deserve the highest-quality education,” she said.

Lewiston Mayor Kristen Cloutier said she was impressed by the poise showed by the young politician to ensure people in her community are represented and have a seat at the table.

“If those (messages) had been directed at me, I would’ve been hiding under my bed,” Cloutier said. “I don’t know that I would’ve had the courage to fight another day. That speaks to her resiliency and her dedication.”


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