AUGUSTA, Maine — For 26-year-old Mana Abdi, Lewiston has become a home away from home. She moved here from Kansas more than a decade ago in 2009. Before that, her family was living in Kenya, where they had moved from Somalia to escape civil war. It's a story that doesn't lack adversity.
Abdi said when her family arrived in Kansas, she was probably 11 or 12 years old — essentially, going into fifth grade. But, she hadn't done proper schooling in Africa, and no one in her family knew how to speak English. The culture shock was also jarring, coming from a very "homogenous" place like Kenya, as Abdi put it.
"It was really dark and very mute, if you will, because you can’t talk to anybody, and you’re stuck with the four people you came with," Abdi said about the move.
She said she learned English during her first summer in the United States, thanks to some kind neighbors who offered to tutor her.
"I took full advantage of that," Abdi said. "Like, every single hour that I could possibly put in, I just read every single day and got tutored every day."
Abdi said by the time she returned to school in the fall, she could decently hold a conversation with fellow students and teachers. Still, though, there were challenges.
She said she was one of the only students of color at school in Kansas, describing it as a "boot camp" for Maine. She said she also didn't find Maine schools to be particularly accommodating to immigrant students.
It was her own drive that took her to the University of Maine at Farmington, where she graduated with a degree in political science and international global studies in 2018.
Abdi said she was originally planning to be a biology major, but she changed her mind when she realized how she might be able to make an impact in policy work.
She said growing up, she often had to advocate for her mother, who spent a lot of time sick in the hospital.
"You quickly have to learn self-advocacy real fast," Abdi said. "The system, one way or another, will force you to learn to advocate for yourself and potentially those around you — especially if you’re someone who has picked up the language rather quickly."
This November, Abdi will by vying for the Maine House District 95 seat. Last month, her Republican opponent dropped out of the race, which means she is now running unopposed.
While she's not taking that status for granted, she said she's excited about the possibility of serving her community and working on issues she cares about — like climate change, education, health care, and housing.
"I think I owe [it to] them to show up as me, as prepared, as well-versed in issues, and [with] as much knowledge [as] I can gain," Abdi said.
South Portland's mayor Deqa Dhalac is also running for a seat in the Maine House as a Democrat after making history earlier this year by becoming the first Somali-American mayor in the country.
She cares about similar issues to Abdi and said she thinks representation is important to make sure people's need are met.
"We need folks like myself who represent a whole different community to be sitting in the state legislature, so that we can be representing all communities in our state," Dhalac said.
She said she's also interested in changing the narrative that some people have about immigrants.
"Some people think that we're here just to collect welfare. We’re not. We’re not here to collect welfare," Dhalac said, later adding, "We’re here to contribute to the economy, to work, and to raise our children in a safe place."
Dhalac said she is inspired by young Mainers like Abdi who are entering the political scene.
"Somebody has to tell these young women, 'You can do this'," Dhalac said. "If I can do it as an old lady who is an immigrant, who has an accent, who has a hijab, who is black — if I can do that, it will be easy for you to do it."
Current Speaker of the House Rep. Ryan Fecteau is well-versed in Abdi and Dhalac's candidacies. He said he understands the need for diversity in a different way — through his family's French-Canadian roots.
"My family came to Maine from Quebec in 1964," Speaker Fecteau said. "My dad and my grandparents moved here to work in the textile mills right here in Biddeford."
Speaker Fecteau said Mainers are facing challenges together, regardless of race, religion, or ethnic background.
"These elections — the historical nature of them — will show Mainers across the state that we’re stronger when we work together. We’re stronger when we support each other. We’re stronger when we embrace our differences," Fecteau said.
NEWS CENTER Maine also reached out to the Maine GOP Multicultural Community Center for comment. In a statement, chairwoman Suheir Alaskari wrote:
"Mainers want change right now - regardless of their background. That's the number one thing we're hearing. We're also speaking with so many members of the community who feel like they are being ignored. Our outreach is allowing people to have a voice in the political process and we welcome anyone who wants to come to the Multi-Cultural Center on Munjoy Hill. We're offering job assistance and information on how American politics works, we're helping people register to vote, and much more. We've seen wonderful interest and support from the community and wish to invite everyone to come by. From our perspective, this is about people from every background working to improve their community and their home country by choice."