A diverse group of Maine women supporting, sharing and enriching each other’s lives
“It’s very rich to be in each other’s lives,” says Cathy Lee, a Maine attorney who counts among her friends dozens of immigrant women. The assumption might be that Lee got to know these immigrant women through her legal practice—but her career is focused on climate change. It’s her heart that’s open wide to cultural change.
When Lee heard of the inaugural Empower the Immigrant Woman Conference that Mufalo Chitam was organizing in 2015, the two women talked for more than an hour. Lee wanted to support the Empower effort—not just financially.
“We agreed that some sort of networking between immigrant women and the rest of us would be helpful after the conference,” Lee says. “It started out as purely social. The idea is for us to help immigrant women in whatever way they need help, which may be simply friendship, improving their English language skills or connecting with a peer group around a particular interest.”
Each Empower Network gathering includes a presentation on a program or resource potentially useful to immigrant women, whether they’re looking for housing, child care, English classes or help establishing a business.
The American-born women who choose to be part of the Empower Network tend to have connections in terms of housing, child care, education or charities or be in careers in business, law or medicine. Likewise, many of the immigrant women had high-powered jobs as engineers, lawyers, midwives or business leaders in their home countries. Sometimes all they need to find a job, an apartment or whatever they need is, as Chitam says, “to know people who know people.”
“For me, one of the things I struggled with for the longest time was how to find a mentor or somebody to look up to who I just like,” says Chitam, who, nearly 20 years after immigrating to Maine, became the first executive director of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition. “Now I look up to Cathy, and she’s become a good family friend who I can invite to my house and cook for her and she invites me to her house. You don’t know where friendships will start. We’re just people.”
In this group that meets monthly, American-born women are in the minority. And, Lee says, there’s value in being part of a group like that and getting a fresh perspective. For example, there was an Empower Network gathering the day after the 2017 presidential inauguration.
“The women from Maine were in despair,” Lee says, “and the immigrant women said we had no idea how good we have it that we have democratic institutions that protect freedom of speech and the right to vote. To me, this was a wakeup call that I need to be there fighting to protect these basic democratic rights that we now feel are at risk.”
This year’s Empower conference at the University of Southern Maine on Nov. 10 will include panel discussions on inclusive democracy and civic engagement as well as a resource fair. That evening, the annual Trailblazers gala will celebrate immigrant women doing amazing things in their communities here in Maine.
One of the Trailblazers in 2017 was Fowsia Musse, a refugee from Somalia who works with Healthy Androscoggin, going door to door to teach people about lead paint risks, and is a member of the Lewiston City Council’s Immigrant and Refugee Integration and Policy Development Working Group. (Musse is also a member of Maine Women Magazine’s advisory board.)
“She’s one of my closest friends,” says Hawo Abdille, another community leader among new Mainers in the Lewiston area. Abdille’s family left Somalia when she was just 1 year old. A Lewiston High School graduate and an American citizen, she’s clear that Maine is her home—and she wants to be a positive force for change. She’s also the new English Language Learners Intake Assessment coordinator for the Lewiston Public Schools and a passionate member of the Empower Network.
“This group inspires me,” Abdille says. “I feel like we can change the world. We are strong women, and the sky is the limit.”
To support the Empower Maine Women Network or to register to attend the conference and gala on Nov. 10: empowerimmigrantwoman.org
Empower Network Conference
Nov. 10, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
University of Southern Maine, Wishcamper Center, Portland
The 2018 Empower Network conference is being supported by the Intercultural Community Center and led by volunteer Ghomri Rostampour, a Kurdish American from South Portland. Includes panel discussions and a resource fair.
Empower Trailblazers Gala
Nov. 10, 5:30 p.m.
Congregation Bet Ha’am, 81 Westbrook St., South Portland
Includes dinner and awards.
Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer based in Scarborough who writes about women’s groups.