Political Riser

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      When the election comes in less than two weeks, there’s an interesting candidate to watch in Maine: Deqa Dhalac. She’s running for state office, and, if she wins, it will be the first time a Somali-born person has been elected to Maine’s legislature. She’s already made history in America as the first Somali-born mayor to serve in the U.S.

      When Deqa Dhalac walks the streets of Greater Portland, Maine, it’s an important waypoint in what’s been a very long journey.

      Dhalac left Somalia in June of 1990 as part of a family plan to get her out.

      Sharyl: How old were you?

      Deqa Dhalac: Oh, Lord. I think I was, 19, 18, I think. 19, I believe. And that was a long time ago. And never been out of the country by myself, or that matter, ever. So it was really very difficult for me just to leave my family.

      Between Somalia and the U.S., there were stops in refugee camps. And Canada, where she asked for asylum. Then, she met her husband.

      Dhalac: So my husband came to the United States 20 years prior to the Civil War, so he has been in Atlanta for a very long time. So I was living in Canada when we met and then married, and he petitioned for me to come to the United States, so that's how I ended up being into the United States.

      Sharyl: And how did you end up deciding to come to Maine from Atlanta?

      Dhalac: Yeah, that's a great story.

      Before we go there, it might help to understand the Somalia that Dhalac fled in 1990.

      The African nation was collapsing into civil war. The U.S. stepped in to provide food aid, then expanded into a mission to establish democracy. In 1993: the infamous Battle of Mogadishu. Somali insurgents shot down two U.S. Special Forces black hawk helicopters. Eighteen American soldiers were killed, some of their bodies dragged through the streets.

      Each year, thousands of Somalis fleeing the chaos have come to the U.S. The State Department settled the largest group in Minnesota, with other enclaves in places like Utah, Washington State, and Georgia.

      And starting in February 2001, some of them began discovering Maine, as I reported from Lewiston, Maine, in this story for Full Measure back in 2015.

      (From 2015) Mohamud and his family were originally placed in Atlanta. But he says they encountered a culture clash, with Somalis worried their kids would imitate bad behavior in poor neighborhoods where refugees settled.

      Mohamud: With drugs, you know, with pants down, you know, with derogatory languages and rap music. Then they started no, no, no, that's not what we want here.

      Sharyl: So you heard or you felt that the environment in Maine would be more what you were looking for, for your family?

      Mohamud: Yes, and since mostly of the Somalis have large families. So they were looking [for] a safe place. They know that it is snow, you know, state, and that may not make happy. And also they know that mostly of the men are white people, you know. That is their major, you know, fear.

      Sharyl: So, you compromise: you live with a lot of white people in a snowy, cold state, but you like it?

      Mohamud: Yes.

      In 2005, Dhalac, too, came to Maine from Atlanta on her uncle’s advice.

      Dhalac: I never heard of Maine before. And I'm like, "What? Where is that?" And he's like, "It's kind of close to Canada. It's way up there." Said, "Okay, I will come and check it out.” Nothing was there, and it was wintertime as well. I'm like, "Oh, my God, it's cold!"

      Sharyl: Was it snowing?

      Dhalac: It was. I'm like, "Aah!" But I mean, I was not new to snow because I lived in Toronto. So — but I loved it. There was a lot of folks that I knew who lived in Atlanta before who were living in Lewiston at the time, and I'm like, "Okay, this is really good."

      She got a job with the city of Portland working with refugees and immigrants. Went to graduate school and earned two master’s degrees. And she might never have run for public office, she says, if it weren’t for the thing that changed her mind in 2016.

      Dhalaq: I think what happened was then-President Trump, when he was a candidate, stopped by here in Maine — in Portland — and really said some not-nice things about Somali communities.

      Donald Trump (August 2016): And as Maine knows, a major destination for Somali refugees. Right? Am I right?

      The presence of so many Somali refugees in the U.S. is a sensitive issue for some. While the U.S. supports certain Somali factions, others are the enemy. Somalia has long been a crossroads for radical Islamic terrorists, and home to Al Qaeda’s East Africa affiliate, al-Shabaab. Here in the U.S., there’s been a negative light cast on financial strain in some communities where Somali refugees settled, and rising crime where Somali gangs are at war.

      Trump: (August 2016): So the Washington Times reported of a Somali refugee program in Minnesota that the effort to resettle large groups of Somali refugees is having the unintended consequence of creating an enclave of immigrants with high unemployment that is both stressing the state’s — I mean, the state is having tremendous problems — its safety net. And creating a rich pool of potential recruiting targets for Islamist terror groups. It’s happening. It’s happening.

      The day after Trump’s speech, residents rallied at Portland City Hall to show support for Maine’s immigrants.

      Dhalac (August 2016): We condemn, in the strongest term, such name calling.

      Dhalac was there.

      Dhalac: So we had a big rally, and a lot of communities came out, and we said, "We're not what this candidate is saying about us."

      That’s when Dhalac says she first seriously contemplated running for office. She got the chance in 2018 when a councilman in South Portland stepped down before the end of his term, and there was a special election to replace him.

      Dhalac: And we won that with landslide.

      Sharyl: My takeaway is, you kind of ran for office because of President Trump in a way.

      Dhalac: Right. Yeah, he made me do it. And that was a positive thing. That was a good thing. Yeah.

      Last year in December, her fellow city council members chose Dhalac to sit in the mayor’s seat. America’s first Somali-born mayor.

      Sharyl: Would you say you were elected to office because you are a Somali woman, in spite of the fact that you're a Somali woman, or for completely different reasons?

      Dhalac: I think completely different reasons. Relationship building, my ability of knowing politics, a lot of, you know, hard work throughout the years, a lot of sitting on different boards. So I don't think I would've just get elected, even though I have all of those credentials, if I hadn't been within the community — my Maine community and as well as my immigrant community — working with all of them.

      Today Dhalac lists her community’s top challenges as struggling businesses, a big homeless problem, and a continuing flow of foreign refugees and asylum seekers.

      Sharyl: Can you explain what's going on with the ongoing situation of asylum seekers and immigrants — is this still a major draw or a major destination?

      Dhalac: Yeah, it is, in a way, and right now we are so full of folks who are asylum-seekers in many, many hotels.

      Sharyl: So there's just not enough resources now to handle everybody who's tried to come here?

      Dhalac: No, but we are trying. Everybody's trying.

      As she continues to pave her own way, not following in anyone else’s footsteps, she’s never far from her own refugee roots.

      Sharyl: What does it make you think about as someone who once yourself was sort of on the run trying to find a new place?

      Dhalac: Right.

      Sharyl: and you see these people, for different reasons, from different places, but likewise making that journey?

      Dhalac: It is difficult. It's not easy, and a lot of people say that, "Why can't they just stay where they're at? Why can't they just go back?" It's not just they decided to leave one day and just show up here. No, it's not. Even their children do not know sometimes that they are traveling six, seven different countries to get to the southern border of the United States and then travel all the way from there to Maine. And it is a hard decision a family will make in order for them to come to a place that is safe.

      Sharyl (on-camera): Dhalac, a Democrat, is facing Republican Michael Dougherty for the state seat. He’s a Navy vet, lifelong resident of South Portland, who worked for 28 years as a toll collector. He says property taxes are outrageous, and he’s for cutting spending, taxes, and red tape. Dougherty says he respects Dhalac and has nothing negative to say about her.