(LEWISTON, ME) — This week handed a big win to candidate Safiya Khalid and her belief that with persistence, one can overcome adversity.
On Tuesday, Khalid, 23, became the first Somali-American elected to the city council of Lewiston, Maine, winning nearly 70% of the vote.
She was one in a number of historic wins for local elections across the U.S., with Nadia Mohamed, 23, elected as the first Somali-American and Muslim woman to the city council in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and Chol Majok, 34, becoming the first refugee elected to public office in Syracuse, New York.
Khalid’s victory comes almost exactly a year after Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American to win a seat in Congress.
And, while each of these cities carries unique stories around immigration throughout the last two decades, Lewiston is a special case. Going back to 2002, a little more than 15 years before Khalid’s big win, more than 1,000 Somali immigrants and refugees found Lewiston and made it home. Khalid was one of them in 2006.
“When we came to the United States, we were first assigned to Elizabeth, New Jersey, but we couldn’t adjust to the environment in that area,” Khalid told ABC News on Thursday. “We did not have a sense of community there. … For me and my family, Lewiston was such a welcoming community.”
While Lewiston has become home to a number of immigrants and refugees alike, it took a lot of pain and patience for the city to get to this place.
In October 2002, then-Mayor Laurier Raymond wrote a letter to the Somali community asking its elders and leaders to stop encouraging other immigrants to move to Lewiston.
“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,” he wrote.
The fears surrounding the increase in Somali immigrants to Lewiston back in 2002 grew from the same root that can be seen today in cities and towns across the U.S.: a fear of losing jobs, housing opportunities and an overall weakened economy.
The city of Lewiston found itself under the spotlight a number of times after Raymond’s letter.
In 2012, former Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald made national news after he said that immigrants should “leave your culture at the door” in a BBC interview; and in 2016, former Gov. Paul LePage took the internet by storm after his controversial remarks regarding out-of-state drug dealers coming into Maine.
“These are guys by the name D-Money, Smoothy, Shifty. … half the time, they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave,” LePage said.
Lewiston, a former milltown, however, appears to have risen above the hate.
The emergence of Somali immigrants nearly two decades ago was followed by lowered crime rates, a number of businesses opened by the Somali community as well as the arrival of more immigrants from countries all over the world, according to the Sun Journal newspaper in 2011.
Khalid credited Lewiston with being the first place she found opportunity and a sense of belonging.
“Lewiston is where I learned to write my name, where I grew up and where I received an education through the public school system,” she said.
During Khalid’s graduation in May from Emerge Maine, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women who want to run for office, she was chosen as class speaker and took that opportunity to announce her campaign. She gave a speech with Maine’s Gov. Janet Mills sitting in the audience.
She said, however, that her interest in politics had been first sparked after the 2016 election.
“I got into politics in 2017 after the election of Donald Trump and having Paul LePage as governor. It pushed me to run for city council because of the racist mayors that we continued to elect here in Lewiston,” Khalid told ABC News. “My haters are my motivators.”
Khalid said she has been a victim of racist trolls on the internet who spewed hate and Islamophobic comments and threats to her.
“During the last week before the election, there were a lot of people saying hateful things to me. The entire race turned into a negative campaign,” she said. “It was a lot of hateful social media and harassment and threats, and it really ripped my heart that people would say these terrible things to someone they never met and didn’t know.”
That didn’t stop Khalid. Instead, she kept knocking on doors and meeting residents.
“What pushed me were the people I met at the doors. They were the most genuine, kind-hearted people I have ever met. They welcomed me into their homes, and we had such wonderful, long conversations. Those were the people of Lewiston,” she said.
Since her win Tuesday, the internet — that was once a source of torment for Khalid just last week — has been filled with praise from influential politicians like former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, presidential candidate Julian Castro and Ilhan Omar.
Khalid now hopes to pour her newfound, winning energy into what made her who she is today: public school education.
“I’ve been telling people since March that I want to build a vibrant community for all residents of Lewiston. We need to focus on our young people, bring them back to Lewiston, and find ways so that they can live and work here. That means going back and focusing on our education,” she said. “I want to invest in our students because they deserve the highest quality of education.”
“Change takes time and it’s hard,” she said. “But if you believe in yourself and you believe in your community, anything’s possible. Tuesday night, we proved that.”
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