Sunday November 10, 2019
BY LINDSAY TICE
With help from her mother, Lewiston's new city councilor overcame violence and hostility in her own country of Somalia. Then she overcame hostility again in America, becoming Lewiston's youngest councilor ever and a role model for many. The deep negativity she experienced on social media during her campaign was ugly, but she has disavowed the hate and looks forward to representing her constituents.
Safiya Khalid reacts after a voter exiting the poles wishes her luck at the entrance of the Lewiston Armory on Election Day, Nov. 5. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal
LEWISTON — The comments began on social media as soon as Safiya Khalid was named Lewiston’s first Somali-American city councilor.
“She only going to help her kind take over.”
“She had somalis voting for her that’s all there is in lewiston.”
“This is very sad. Where were all the American voters yesterday??? Can’t believe they let this happen…”
But 23-year-old Khalid — also the youngest person ever elected to the council — wasn’t reading Facebook after her historic win Tuesday night. She was too busy calling her mom, who as a single parent had moved her three young children, ages 7, 5 and 2 months, to a country where she knew no one and couldn’t speak the language.
“She was just crying. Oh my god, it was the best moment of the entire night, just seeing her happy,” said Khalid of her mother, who attended the election celebration later that evening. “She said, ‘I knew you could do it. I knew. There was a reason I moved to Lewiston all those years ago.'”Khalid’s win was extraordinary for a number of reasons. She will be Lewiston’s first Somali-American councilor — black and Muslim — in a city that is increasingly diverse but still 88% white and largely Catholic. She won nearly 70% of the vote. And she did so while a social media campaign circulated racist comments about her, disparaged her background and bombarded the internet with an unflattering photo taken of her when she was 15.
Khalid’s victory was covered by CNN, Washington Post, Fortune, Christian Science Monitor and BBC, in addition to every major news outlet in Maine.
Abigail Fisher Williamson, a Trinity College political scientist who has extensively studied the Somali community in Lewiston, called Khalid’s win “a real milestone” for the city.
Electing a young person who immigrated to the city as a child “isn’t something that normally happens” when newcomers begin to put down roots in the United States, she said. Typically, second generation Americans — those born here — are the ones who run for public office and, eventually, get elected.
“The speed with which this happened is impressive,” Williamson said, calling that win a testament both to Khalid and Lewiston.
Many in Maine seem to feel the same way. Many negative Facebook comments about Khalid’s win were immediately followed by scores of positive ones.
“These people don’t understand this was exactly how their ancestors were treated. Irish, Italian — all accused of coming to ‘take over,’ refused jobs, bullied. How quickly people forget.”
“Congratulations, Safiya! Lewiston is lucky to have you!”
“Where were all the American voters? Voting! What a fabulous outcome!”
Khalid, for her part, is ready to move forward.
“If I can bring a smile or help someone in need, that’s all that matters,” said Khalid, who will be sworn in on Jan. 6. “And I want to do that in government.”
FROM REFUGEE CAMP TO CITY COUNCIL
Khalid wasn’t the first African-born Muslim candidate to win office in Maine.
Jama Mohamed was elected to the Lewiston School Committee in 2013, the first African immigrant to be elected in Lewiston. Pious Ali was elected to the Portland School Board in 2013 and, in a first for that city, to the Portland City Council in 2016.
Ali said he received some “nasty emails” during his city council run, but he didn’t experience the kind of hate that was directed at Khalid.
“I didn’t receive that much. I had some people slam doors in front of me and say, ‘We’re not going to support you,’ which is OK,” he said.
Ali believes there are two reasons why his campaign wasn’t so scarred by racism. He ran his campaign in 2016, before President Donald Trump’s election that year seemed to embolden white supremacists and others who dislike people who are black, Muslim or from another country. And while he is Muslim like Khalid, Ali doesn’t wear traditional Muslim clothing. In jeans and a blazer, he doesn’t stand out.
“She is facing so many things. We’re both black, we’re both immigrants and we’re both Muslims, but she happens to be a woman and younger,” said Ali, 50.
Khalid was born in Somalia and moved to a refugee camp in Kenya when she was 3. The family moved to the United States when Khalid was 7, touching down at a New Jersey airport with no knowledge of English and, it turned out, no one there to meet them.
“Our case manager forgot about us,” she said. “We couldn’t speak the language. Everything was very foreign to us. It was like being placed on a different planet, really scary. When my mom saw the terminal was emptying out, she cried.”
The family ended up in an apartment, but again was left without help and no way to communicate. Khalid said her mother, in desperation, took to stepping outside the apartment and approaching passersby by saying “Peace be upon you” in Arabic. Finally, one day, a man said it back.
The stranger was not from Somalia, but he knew people in New York who were, and he helped the two families connect. The New York family urged Khalid’s family to join them there. Her mother said no. She wanted a community. She wanted safety and comfort for her children, and she wanted a sense of belonging.
“They said, ‘How about Lewiston, Maine?'” Khalid said.
The next day, Khalid, her little brothers and mother boarded a bus to Lewiston, joining the wave of Somali families that had started moving to the city a couple of years earlier.
“I am who I am today because of my mom,” Khalid said. “Back in Somalia she was a warrior and here in this country she continues to be. … She just worked really, really hard to give us a life she never imagined for herself.”
Khalid graduated from Lewiston High School in 2014 and from the University of Southern Maine in 2018. She works as a case manager for the nonprofit Gateway Community Services Maine.
A Democrat, Khalid had been a field organizer for the party in Lewiston. When she decided to run for the Ward 1 city council seat this year, she built her own grassroots campaign. For months, Khalid spent two hours after work each night and about six hours on weekends knocking on doors throughout her ward.
“I heard a lot of, ‘Good for you.’ I heard a lot of, ‘We need you,'” she said.
All residents — immigrants and native Mainers alike — seemed happy that she wanted to talk with them about schools, affordable housing and any other issues they saw in the city, she said.
On social media, people were less happy.
Things turned particularly ugly last month when audio surfaced online appearing to show two of Khalid’s supporters harassing her opponent, fellow Democrat Walter “Ed” Hill, while he was at home recovering from surgery in August. The audio was released on YouTube in multi parts by the anonymous group “Lewiston First Media.”
Hill has said the voices belonged to Lewiston Democratic Committee Chairman Kiernan Majerus-Collins and Treasurer Owen Cardwell-Copenhefer, who were candidates for the Lewiston School Committee. In a Sun Journal story on the situation, Majerus-Collins would not confirm whether it was his voice in the recording. Cardwell-Copenhefer declined to comment.
Khalid condemned the harassment.
“I made it very, very clear that such behavior is completely unacceptable,” she told the Sun Journal.
But the story quickly spread on social media, including to right-wing Facebook groups where commenters mocked Khalid’s dress and heritage. People began spamming Khalid’s own Facebook campaign page with comments like, “She is a Muslim whose aim is to take over the country a piece at a time — anybody who thinks there is any good in any of them is really ignorant”; “They want to run our country”; and “Probably endorses sharia law, and lies like a rug. Does anyone want to make a bet that somewhere in her past she’s been radicalized?”
Some comments were too graphic and inappropriate for the newspaper to publish.
A photo of Khalid, taken when she was 15, also began circulating on social media. The picture shows her making a face and giving her middle finger to the camera.
The Washington Post reported that one tweet about the photo was shared nearly 4,000 times before the election and included the comment: “This is a pic of a young lady whom is running for a position in a governmental role for the town of Lewiston, Maine. Make her go viral.”
Many of the racist comments were from people out of state. National media referred to the commenters as “trolls,” a slang term for someone who posts inflammatory messages in order to provoke others.
Khalid mostly tried to ignore the comments.
“I just don’t have time to worry about what someone in Alabama or Mississippi would say about something in Lewiston,” she said. “What helped me through this election and continues to push me are the people of Lewiston.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
Khalid’s election immediately sparked attention.
National media outlets began calling her for an interview. Some prominent politicians, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, and former U.S Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, all congratulated her or posted about her win on social media. Her story went international.
But there was negative attention, too.
On the Facebook page Lewiston Rocks, an unofficial page dedicated to the city, page administrator Tina Hutchinson warned members on election night to keep their comments civil. Still, she found herself deleting unacceptable comments, and then outright banning people, the next day.
“Most of them from out of town,” she said. “I’m not playing the game anymore. It’s done … We don’t get to where Lewiston needs to be by feeding into that divisiveness.”
By 1 p.m. the day after the election, a Sun Journal story about Khalid’s election had received hundreds of comments on Facebook — some of them so racist that three editors took turns deleting them as they popped up. The Sun Journal ultimately pulled the story from Facebook early that afternoon. When people then migrated to the Portland Press Herald’s Facebook page to leave racist comments on the Sun Journal story posted there, that paper pulled the story from Facebook as well.
Still, experts see Khalid’s win as a net gain for immigrants, particularly African immigrants and particularly in Maine.
“That happened for a political reason: She is the future of Lewiston and most people in Lewiston see that,” said Catherine Besteman, an anthropology professor at Colby College in Waterville.
Besteman, who wrote the 2016 book “Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine,” said Somali immigrants have proven especially adept at stepping forward into the larger community. That’s due in part, Besteman said, to a Somali culture that has always valued participatory democracy.
Sayu Bhojwani, founder and president of New American Leaders in New York, where she served as the city’s first commissioner of immigrant affairs, said Khalid has become “an example of what’s possible” for immigrants across the country.
“It helps us redefine who can be a leader,” she said.
She pointed out that Khalid was not alone in her win this election season. She counted more than 250 candidates who hailed from immigrant communities in America. More than half of them won, she said.
“They’re running as American leaders for the next generation,” she said.
Khalid may be the first Somali-American on the council, but she likely won’t be the last. In Lewiston’s public schools, where Somali students make up about 25% of the population, Superintendent Todd Finn said the day after her election that three young women already told him they considered Khalid a role model.
“I believe she has provided a life path for many young learners to follow, knowing that with hard work, perseverance, and dedication to a goal, they can make a vision come to life,” he said.
Former Mayor John Jenkins, the city’s only African-American mayor, said there are few times when any politician “is celebrated by all constituents.” Someday, he said, “there maybe a kumbaya moment in politics,” but until that happens, he believes public servants need “to commit ourselves to working with opposing opinions, to disagree without becoming disagreeable, to abstain without becoming obstinate, to assert with becoming aggressive, to contend without becoming contentious, to listen before legislating, to stay the course and remember why we chose to serve.”
Khalid said she’s not sure what her own future will be in politics. Maybe she’ll run for other offices. Time will tell.
For now, she’s focused on her city.
“I am truly honored to be able to serve the people of Lewiston,” she said.