Sixteen years ago, a seven year old Somali girl arrived in a congested terminal of JFK airport alongside her mother and her two younger brothers with no knowledge of what the signs above read, no familiar faces to find solace in, and no way to ask for help from passersby. This young girl was Safiya Khalid.
Her family escaped war devastated Somalia as refugees four years prior, and stayed in a refugee camp in Kenya for three years, until they were eventually sponsored to travel to the United States where they expected to smoothly settle in to a new place they could call home. But upon landing in America, Khalid recalls being immediately confronted by frightening struggles. Her family’s case manager had forgotten to pick them up from the airport, forcing them to navigate American life all by themselves.
As the airport began emptying out and the last of people left with cab drivers or family members, Khalid witnessed her mother finally break down into tears. It was in this moment that a security guard noticed Khalid’s mother and knelt down in front of them with a tissue box in her hand.
With no way to communicate and explain her situation, Khalid’s mother pointed towards her UN documents. After looking through these papers, the security guard eventually found a number to call and an old woman arrived to drive Khalid’s family to a small apartment in Elizabeth, N.J.
It was a relief to finally have a place to stay, but apart from the occasional visits that Khalid’s family received from the elderly woman who brought them food every now and then, they remained completely isolated from the rest of the world and had even lost touch with their friends and family in Somalia.
One day, Khalid’s mother decided to leave their apartment and stand at the sidewalk right outside their building. From the window of the first floor, Khalid and her brother watched as their mother greeted every stranger that walked by her with “Aslamualaikum” (Peace be upon you).
She was ignored, pushed around by big men, and insulted, but she did not let this deter her. The next day she returned to the sidewalk and again said “Aslamualaikum” to those who passed by.
Khalid and her brother feared for their mother’s safety but day after day and week after week she continued to greet people the only way she knew how. One day, a man finally replied with “Walaykum Asalam”(And upon you be peace).
Through a window, Khalid saw her mother cry and kiss a stranger as the stranger embraced her mother. When the man was brought inside, Khalid and her brothers also hugged him and cried for the warmth of his companionship. The next day he brought a Somali family with him who helped resettle Khalid’s family in Lewiston, Maine, where they finally found a Somali Muslim community that welcomed and supported them for years to come.
Khalid was recently elected to the Lewiston City Council, and on Jan. 6, she became the first Somali and Muslim to serve in an elected official position in Lewiston. She has since become a national symbol of the growing inclusivity and representation in American local politics.
When running for city council, Khalid learned to embody the same perseverant spirit that she saw from her mother as a little girl. Despite the Islamophobic and racist comments posted and shared online from people across the nation, Khalid continued to knock on doors in her community.
Her motivation was the people of Lewiston: “As a counselor and as a resident, I’m always trying to build relations across the board, whether it be with business owners…whether it be with students. We need to understand and we need to communicate with one another and that’s something that we are missing. We’re not understanding each other, right? And if we don’t understand each other, then there’s fear and there’s prejudice.”
As I conversed with Khalid, I reflected on how Bates students sometimes fail to understand the community around them and instead frequently dismiss it as the “Dirty Lew.”
I asked Khalid how we could be more committed to our greater community and she responded, “We need to figure out a way to get more [Bates] students into the community [through] volunteering or [through] other ways. One thing I’m currently doing is working with Ellen Alcorn at the Harward Center to create a homework help center at our office at Gateway.”
She also suggested that the Environmental Coalition become involved with her upcoming “Own a Street” youth project designed to clean up streets, plant flowers, and promote recycling.
Many of the immigrants that I’ve interacted in Lewiston will blame themselves for their inability to learn English and for their isolation from the rest of society. In reality, it is the lack of resources and attention for their needs that is to blame. As an institution that prides itself on being an active member of the Lewiston/Auburn community, Bates should be held responsible for providing some of these resources.
According to Khalid, one of her frustrations: “Okay, one thing about Bates is that I would really love for them to open up their soccer field to the youth…and they don’t. They get kicked out all the time…and it’s very, very disappointing. Parents… who have fled war and violence in their home countries…are dealing with so much trauma and balancing so many obstacles in life that they cannot go out of their way and register their child to play soccer on the field. What if we [open the field to the public] once a week?”
Khalid’s vision for Lewiston centers on youth development through social/civic engagement and we can become an integral part of this mission. It’s time for Bates to take a stand of solidarity with its new councilwoman and to practice real inclusivity of our Somali neighbors.