Deqa Dhalac is the first Somalian refugee immigrant to become a mayor in the United States. A Black Muslim woman, she left Somalia thirty years ago, fleeing a tragic civil war. She took with her the courage her parents gave her. Her mother would pray with her this message: “My dear daughter. I beg God for you to be the leader of many ethnicities and help those in need with the pride of your father.” She has made this happen. She is respected and loved and has made a difference, not only for her fellow immigrants but for all the people of South Portland. Deqa carries with her a positive light that never stops burning. She knows there are always solutions, and she never gives up. Speaking with conviction and pride, she says, “So it’s a long journey, but only in this country — only in this amazing country — can you have this kind of opportunity.” She leads with her wonderful mind and kind heart. It was an amazing pleasure to interview someone we are convinced will change this world.
Mary Barstow: Good morning, Ms. Mayor.
Deqa Dhalac: How are you?
Mary: How about you? You have become a superstar.
Deqa Dhalac: Oh, I tell you. It’s too much. I’m like, I’m just a regular person. I can’t do this.
Mary: We are so proud of you.
Deqa Dhalac: Thank you.
Mary: I know you have a really big heart. Where did you get this?
Deqa Dhalac: Maybe by meeting people in different walks of life, and just loving each and every person for who they are, and also working for the city of Portland, by meeting people from all over the world. It’s just humbling to hear people’s stories, and it gives you more to respect in people.
Mary: Now, when did you come to the United States?
Deqa Dhalac: That was 1992.
Mary: You were a refugee, and you came because of a civil war, correct?
Deqa Dhalac: Yes. I was a displaced person, but I did not stay in a refugee camp. We were displaced because of he civil war in Somalia in 1990.
Mary: Did your parents come with you?
Deqa Dhalac: No, I was just by myself..
Mary: How old were you?
Deqa Dhalac: Roughly, I think I was either 19 or 20, I believe.
Mary: Did you ever get to see your parents again?
Deqa Dhalac: My dad passed away in 1989, but my mom is still alive.
Mary: I’m so glad she got to see your success. That’s wonderful.
Deqa Dhalac: Yeah, she’s in Somalia now, but we talk every day.
Mary: Now when you first came, you went to Georgia?
Deqa Dhalac: Yeah, I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, where my children were born, and then we moved to Maine in 2005 and lived in Lewiston.
Mary: Were you married before you left Somalia?
Deqa Dhalac: No, I met my husband in Atlanta. We married in Canada and then he petitioned me to come to the United States because he was a US citizen. So that’s how I came to United States.
Mary: How many children do you have?
Deqa Dhalac: We have three.
Mary: What made you come to Maine?
Deqa Dhalac: That is an absolutely wonderful question. In Atlanta, it is a very, very busy city, and raising three small children there was not really giving me what I needed in life. We were raised to have more education. My father was all about education, and I wanted to do more with my education.
I want to do more, but I couldn’t do that. My uncle moved to Maine in 2004, because there was an of influx of Somalis coming to Maine. For me, it was to get more education. So, he said, “Hey, Deqa, if you want to go back to school, if you want to still work, if you want the kids to have a good education, you need to come to Maine!” And I was like, “Maine? Where is that?” He said, “It’s just right! It’s very cold, it has a lot of snow.”
So I came and visited him end of 2004, and I really liked what I saw in Lewiston. Small town, not a lot of traffic, but you can do a lot.
Mary: Did you ever in your wildest dreams think that you’d move to Maine and then become a mayor?
Deqa Dhalac: No, no, and no. I was not even thinking of running for office, let alone being the mayor of this beautiful city. And as you know, in general, women — it does not matter what color their skin is — we always hesitate about running for office. We’re like, “Hmm, no. I can’t do that. That’s not me.”
We have other things. But it’s easy for men to say, “Yeah, yeah, I can do this.” So for me, as a woman, number one, and then a woman of color, an immigrant and also Muslim, I was like, “Oh, I don’t even have a chance.” So that was not on my radar.
Mary: How did it happen?
Deqa Dhalac: I have this huge love of human beings. So ever since I came to Maine, I have been building relationships with people, making sure that I am giving back to my community, the broader community, whether I am sitting on different boards, talking to legislatures about certain bills that are affecting community members, and being part of the community.
And a lot of people got to know me, saw who I am, what I do, and they know that if they need me, I will be there for supporting them or helping them. And then in 2016 candidate Trump came to Maine and said a lot of bad things about the Somali’s. Over 3,000 of us, all Americans, all immigrants, all Mainers came and said no to that. And we condemned that. We said, “No. We love our community.”
And my good friend, Kathy Lee, reached out and said, “Hey, Deqa, can you entertain to take a training at Emerge Maine?” And I was, “What is that, Kathy?” She said, “It’s just this amazing organization that trains Democratic women to run for office. “So, I met with Sarah Woodward, and I learned so much, how to knock on doors, how to talk to constituents, how to listen. I have been helping immigrant communities to become U.S. citizen and vote. Those were one of the big things for me, were people in the immigrant community to register to vote. And, that’s one of the biggest rights that they have. And I’ve been doing that for a very long time.
So, I learned more about how the system works in the United States. And then my city councilor who was elected for three years stepped down after he only served one year.
My phone, my emails, everything went wild. People telling me, it’s your time. You need to run.
So, I talked to my kids and my oldest was, “I don’t know, mom. You just have all of these identities that are clearly negative, negative Muslim, immigrant, black, woman. But my two younger kids said that if I don’t do it, who’s going to do it?
Mary: So true.
Deqa Dhalac: They said, “If you do it, a lot of kids who look like you will know they can do the same thing.” And, what really moved me was the fact that many of those relationships I had been building over the years stepped up and they said, “What can we do? We will knock doors with you. We will take the professional pictures for you. We will build your website. We will build your Facebook.”
It was overwhelming love. That was really amazing.
Mary: What year did you run?
Deqa Dhalac: I ran for 2018.
Yeah, 2018. That was my first, because it was a special election. My city councilor only served one year. So, we had to fill two years and we won that by landslide, double the numbers.
Deqa Dhalac: And, then I got reelected again, last November.
Mary: And what do you love most about America?
Deqa Dhalac: What’s not to love? This is a country that gives an immigrant person like me the opportunity to become a mayor in this beautiful city. It’s a land of opportunity. It’s absolutely wonderful. And we work hard as immigrants to be part of our community. So, if we want to build a community, we have to all come together. And I have that example. I am that example. We are ninety percent white city here, and everybody voted. Most people voted for me.
Mary: Isn’t that reason for us all to celebrate?
Deqa Dhalac: They know who I am. And my peers, six white city councilors then said, “We want you to be our next mayor.” So what is not to love in this United States?
Mary: Sometimes people who have been here a long time forget how great the opportunities are here. So who is your hero?
Deqa Dhalac: I have so many heroes who were world leaders, from Mahatma Gandhi to Mandela to Mother Teresa. We just lost another giant … our Bishop Desmond Tutu. But I would say my biggest heroes were my parents. My father was, in his time, someone from Africa, someone from a Muslim country, who was, I think, the biggest feminist I know. He fought for women’s rights, for education. And also my mother who is a poet, but cannot read or write in her own language. But she’s a poet. They raised me in a way that is love to everybody and respect to everybody.
Mary: As a Muslim, have you have problems with not being accepted?
Deqa Dhalac: Yeah. Just now, when I became a mayor, we had a hate email, that came through in our email, who was sent to all the councilors, including me, saying that, “Oh, this woman. Do not trust her. She’s going to bring Sharia law.” And I was, come on now. We have an amazing constitution in this country. I get all of those things all the time, but I do not really waste time on them. I just ignored those things.
Mary: Good for you. You have the ability to look beyond people’s — usually — their own sadness. They didn’t have the love from parents like you did, obviously, to learn that. Now, where do you see your future? Are you going to run for the senate?
Deqa Dhalac: Well, if the opportunity comes, why not?
Mary: Why not indeed.
Deqa Dhalac: Right now, we have a great state representative and a state senator. But if the opportunity comes, I will entertain it.
Mary: I feel great things for you.
Deqa Dhalac: Thank you.
Mary: Now, are you a poet like your mom?
Deqa Dhalac: Oh no. It’s said that it skips a generation. It skipped me, but I think my daughter can put things together, some words. But with my mom, she will create some poetry or something and she will say it. It just comes to her naturally.
Mary: How old are your children now?
Deqa Dhalac: Oh, my oldest is 28. My second son is 22, and my daughter just turned 21 last week.
Mary: They must to be so proud of you.
Deqa Dhalac: They really good kids and they are happy.
Mary: In your dreams at night, do you ever have a wish to go further in the political arena?
Deqa Dhalac : When I first came to the United States, I worked with this amazing couple. The wife was a Democrat and the husband was Republican. They love each other. The family has decent conversations. But when they vote, they vote different. And that is how it should be.
Mary: That’s the way it used to be.
Deqa Dhalac: And I want that back. I want that back. I have been here for a long time, and I’ve seen that. It’s just that we are not communicating. We are not talking to each other.
Mary: What do you think you could do to make that difference?
Deqa Dhalac: I think I’m doing my part. At least, we have community gatherings. Well, thanks to COVID, now we don’t do it. We had a Muslim women and non-Muslim women discussions. And this particular woman said, “I thought all Muslims are terrorists. And I’m afraid of Muslims.” Then, she just talks with three other Muslim women, they talked, they end up having all kinds of things in common, and they laughed. So, we’re doing our part. We’re just bringing our communities together. And I think that’s what we need to do. I think Lewiston is doing some good things, too, bringing Lewiston and the French speaking Canadian folks together. There’s a lot of good things happening, and I am so, so, so happy that we are in Maine, where we can talk and see that it – our backgrounds, color, gender, or religion – don’t matter as much.
Mary: You make Maine really proud. You’re a great example. Have you been contacted by any national TV stations? Are they trying to get you on CNN or anything?
Deqa Dhalac: CNN already interviewed me for their website, or online version. That’s the one that came out first. And I did talk to BBC. Anybody who wants to talk, I’m fine with that. I want them to know that in Maine, we might be the whitest state in the country, but we have diversity, and we have respect for one another, and I want to make sure people really understand how we do things in Maine.
Mary: You make us proud. And I am going to watch you close, because I know you’re going to change this world.
Deqa Dhalac: Thank you for saying that.