Former refugee. Single mother of five. And Executive Director of Maine Community Integration in Lewiston.
Fowsia Musse mentors hundreds of Lewiston-area girls involved with Isku-Filan—“Strong Girls” in Somali—the after-school and summer program that she founded three years ago. And now, finally, at the age of 42, she sees herself as a strong woman.
“In some aspects of my life, I showed myself to be courageous and talked about girls’ empowerment,” Fowsia says. “But in my personal life, I wasn’t actually that person.”
Growing up in war-torn Somalia and being subjected to female circumcision as a child, Fowsia arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1995. She dealt with her trauma in the most American of ways: speaking out against injustice, discovering a love of fashion, and going through a punk rock phase. But, by the time she graduated from high school in Georgia, Fowsia was in an arranged marriage and had given birth to a daughter. Within a year, she had a second daughter.
“That’s how I was raised,” she says. “You have children young and that life is hard.”
The climate in Georgia—too similar to Somalia—made life even harder, triggering Fowsia’s memories of abuse as a child. She took the advice of her sister-in-law and made the trip to Lewiston, Maine, to see if it would be more to her liking. It was a radical, risk-taking move. And her husband followed.
That first winter in Maine, Fowsia took a Yellow Cab to Hannaford in the first snowfall she’d ever seen. “The windows of small single-family houses had Christmas lights, and I felt very peaceful,” she says. “Because winter has no association with my childhood trauma, it has the opposite effect.”
By the time the young couple had their third daughter—the first born in Maine—her husband had moved on, settling in Maryland. Fowsia stayed, raising their children in Lewiston. Whenever he came back, Fowsia says, she would step back as head of household and let him co-parent. He’d drink, belittle her community service, and leave . . . and eventually come back again. Until this fall, when she divorced him.
“I feel empowered and liberated that I, as a Muslim woman, asked for a divorce,” Fowsia says, adding that the faith leader from her local mosque advocated on her behalf. “I wanted to show my girls that this isn’t what a healthy relationship looks like. I wanted to break the cycle.”
As an American woman with a career, she says, she had a choice that her own mother in Somalia had not.
Soon after Fowsia arrived in Maine in 2003, she started volunteering as a neighborhood advocate, helping other immigrants enroll their children in public school. That work led to her being hired as a cultural broker with Central Maine Medical Center, then as an advocate for victims of sexual violence. In 2008, Fowsia founded the Auburn Neighborhood Network, a precursor to Maine Community Integration, the nonprofit that she runs today. She was on the Lewiston City Council’s Refugee Integration and Policy Working Group. All those years, her focus was on immigrants, especially Somali immigrants.
Then, in 2016, the organization Healthy Androscoggin hired her as a lead abatement educator working with the City of Lewiston. “When I was first asked, I thought, ‘Wait, you want me to educate white people?’” Fowsia laughs, wide-eyed. Out of 198 tenants she worked with, only nine were new Mainers. This experience jolted her out of the misconception that the American dream comes easily to those born here.
“I feel empowered and liberated that I, as a Muslim woman, asked for a divorce. I wanted to show my girls that this isn’t what a healthy relationship looks like.”
“For the first time, I saw intergenerational poverty,” she says. “I bonded with a lot of the residents, and it was a privilege to remind them of the American dream so that we could uplift each other.”
Meanwhile, Healthy Androscoggin supported Fowsia’s volunteer efforts. “They raised, grew me, and gave me all the support that I needed,” Fowsia says. “To those who helped me, my race and my religion weren’t a barrier. They saw a person who did the work.”
Fowsia stepped up as executive director of Maine Community Integration (MCI) in 2018, even though she had to build it up for two years before she could draw a salary. MCI leads community initiatives to promote awareness of child abuse and sex trafficking and to promote gender equity and women’s reproductive rights. And they work to lift up Lewiston-area girls—both white and black—with empowering experiences, from cooking, sewing, and braiding hair to exploring careers in science and technology. Over the past couple of years, the “Strong Girls” Isku-Filan programs for girls have expanded from elementary school programs to include middle and high school girls.
Fowsia’s work is about integrating the two worlds in which she has lived. It’s about inviting girls—from all backgrounds and cultures—to lift each other up. To have pride. To belong.
Those are the intangibles that Fowsia has been able to give her own children. Shadia, 20, is a pre-law student in Boston, and Ismahan, 19, is studying accounting in New York. Fowsia’s daughter Vilsan is a junior at Edward Little High School. Her son Mubarak (Moby) is in seventh grade. And the youngest daughter, Hawa, is the fifth sibling to attend East Auburn Elementary School as a first grader.