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A Maine city that's 90% white now has a Somali-American mayor in a historic first

Dhalac's win comes almost 20 years after the mayor of Lewiston, Maine, wrote an open letter telling Somali immigrants not to come to his city.

A Maine city that's 90% white now has a Somali-American mayor in a historic first
Image source: LinkedIn/ddhalac

Deqa Dhalac has been breaking down barriers all her life, and now she has taken the biggest step of her career as a public official. Dhalac, a Somali American, became the first Black and Muslim mayor of South Portland on Monday in a significant win for diversity. The 53-year-old's win is all the more impressive when you consider it comes in a city whose population is 90% white. She is also believed to be the first Somali-American mayor in the country. Dhalac left Somalia in 1990 as a civil war was brewing, and came to Atalanta, America in 1992. Dhalac was chosen as Mayor by six other city councilors, which was followed by an inauguration ceremony, reported CNN. Dhalac's inauguration ceremony was also attended by Somali immigrant population that has been growing in states like Maine, Minnesota, Ohio and Washington.



Dhalac has come a long way from when residents wouldn't open their doors to her when she came knocking because she wore a hijab and they assumed she didn't speak English. However, Dhalac persisted. She has been speaking to and for the community and people started to listen to her. Dhalac's rise to mayor in a predominantly white city, she says, is down to connecting with the people. "People will always have some kind of reservation...but will get to know you, listen to you and see who you are through that," she says. According to U.S. Census, Maine is the 'whitest' state in the country. She ran for City Council in South Portland, Maine, in 2018 and won. Dhalac has always been active in ground-level politics, encouraging fellow immigrants to become citizens and vote but there came a point where she realized that wasn't enough. "No matter how important my work was, we were missing out at the decision-making tables," said Dhalac in her inaugural address.



She was chosen as Mayor by other city councilors, who are all white and they elected her in a unanimous vote. The councilors lauded Dhalac for her dedication to the community and the issues she has taken up in recent years. Dhalac's step up as Mayor could also have a favorable outlook on immigrants. She is keen to break down doors to help others like her. "I'm...really proud of the fact that I'm going to be opening a lot of paths for other folks who look like me, especially our young community members, to say, 'If this woman can do this, actually I can do that,'" said Dhalac last month after her nomination. "And also not only for immigrant, first-generation or Black people, but also young, White individuals who may have been afraid or don't want to be a part of the civic duties that we all have. ... I say, 'Yes, if I can do this, yes, you can do it. We really, really need you, each and every one of you in this beautiful city of ours, to step up.'"


More and more Somali Americans are now considering taking up roles in local school boards and city councils. They have Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and now, Dhalac to look up to. New American Leaders, a group that trains and encourages immigrants to run for office, is hoping many others follow in the footsteps of Dhalac. "Her leadership will certainly make a big difference not only in South Portland, but around the country," said Ghida Dagher, the organization's president. "She's going to serve an example for Somali Americans across the country to step up and step into their own leadership journey. ... It's about owning their own power and potential in our democracy."




Seth Goldstein, vice president of the South Portland Historical Society, says Dhalac's election is a new chapter in the city's history. "It's very exciting, I think that it is reflective of the way that the community here is gradually changing," said Goldstein, who says there are around 6,000 Somalis in Maine, a majority of whom migrated in the early 2000s. Dhalac's win comes almost 20 years after the mayor of Lewiston, Maine, wrote an open letter telling Somali immigrants not to come to his city. She received a standing ovation after her inaugural speech in which she promised to keep an open mind as mayor "and listen with empathy, compassion, grace and understanding, so we can serve South Portland together."


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