Photo credit: Safiya Khalid

“No matter what your background, if you want to run for office, you should.”

Safiya Khalid is the first Somali-American, the first refugee and the youngest person to be elected to the council of Lewiston, the second largest city in Maine, US.

You’re the first Somali-American to be elected to Lewiston Council. What does that victory mean to you? What did it mean to your family and community?

My victory on November 5th demonstrates how progressive, welcoming and loving Lewiston truly is. My community came out and supported my race because my campaign is reflective of our community. My platform and the issues I ran on resonated with many community members. This was demonstrated throughout the campaign trail as well as on election night. The entire city of Lewiston is hopeful and looking forward to a bright future filled with possibilities. That’s what my campaign was about and continues to be.

Your family came to America after living in a refugee camp. Can you describe your journey?

My family and I came to America completely empty-handed. We were complete foreigners. We felt terrified and vulnerable. We did not have a familiar face waiting for our arrival; even our sponsor forgot to meet us at the airport terminal. We did not speak one word of English. We were distressed and concerned for our lives.

All that changed when we arrived in Lewiston, Maine, a community full of diversity, inclusion and generosity.  I went through the Lewiston Public Schools and then went off to study Psychology at the University of Southern Maine. I am who I am today because Lewiston opened its doors to so many refugees like myself. I am deeply grateful that I can call Lewiston my home.

What was your route into American politics and where did your interest to pursue an active role in politics come from?

I have always put my family first, being the first to get a car, to get a job, to graduate high school and college. I stayed strong and tried to be a great role model to my two younger brothers. The Lepage Administration and the election of Trump gave me a different view of America. I knew that the hate they spewed and their xenophobic rhetoric was not what our country and our state stood for.

I ran for the school committee with no experience, no support and little time. Despite going to school full-time and working at a manufacturing plant making boots, I still had the energy to represent my community at the school committee. I know that a lot of our schools are facing challenges, from large classroom sizes to lack of diversity amongst educators, as well as insufficient funding. I lost that race, but it further motivated me to stay engaged to fight for the needs of my community. I got elected to committees, got on boards, and enrolled in Emerge Maine.

As a public figure, you’ve been exposed to harassment as a woman of colour and as a Muslim on social media during your campaign. How did that impact you?

It’s unfortunate that during the entire campaign – especially the last week before the election – campaigning turned to personal attacks and a lot more hate. The hate speech and all the harassment definitely hurt my feelings – but not enough to derail my passion for Lewiston!  Most, if not all, of the harassment came from around the country.

The precious moments I had with constituents pushed me to go out every day to knock on more doors. I met the most genuine, kind-hearted individuals on the doorstep and they gave me hope and motivation.

You carried out most of your electioneering door-to-door due to the hostile online atmosphere. How did that affect your campaign?

Since March of 2019, I have been canvassing Ward 1. I have built relationships, trust and so much more with complete strangers. I did this until the end of the campaign. That is why I won the election. You don’t win elections on the internet but through real conversations with real people.  I met many of the people I’d talked to at doors all those months ago at the polling location. Most of them thanked me for coming to their door and listening to their challenges.

You’re one of a group of younger politicians that have been put in post. What knowledge and attitudes do you think Millennials and younger generations can bring to American politics?

Young people across the board have so much potential, and will bring different perspectives to the table. We are in a climate crisis that will impact the youth today more than the adults. We have first-hand experience of 21st century education. We know what the Millennials and younger generations want in all sectors of our society. We are tired of adults making decisions on our future on our behalf. We need to be involved at all levels so we can live the best possible future – not only for ourselves but for our children and our children’s children.

There’s been a rapid increase in the number of Muslims – particularly Muslim women – seeking office in America, from the highest levels of state to local governance. Can you explain why that is?

No matter what your background, if you want to run for office, you should. It’s crucial to have all voices heard. I am a strong believer in representative democracy. I also think that when divisive individuals come to power and spew hatred, it compels a lot of people to get engaged and even run for office because their identity is under attack. That is what we’ve seen in 2018 and 2019 and what we will see for more years to come.

What do you hope to achieve in your role as councillor?

I want to build a vibrant community for all residents, especially for young people. I believe our kids deserve the highest quality education. That starts with funding and more investment. We need to grow our economy by bringing in investment and supporting our small businesses. This also will help build our crumbling infrastructure. I want to focus on building relationships between organizations and community members.

Who are your role models – in life and politics?

The person who comes to mind is my lovely mother. Back in Somalia she went through tremendous trauma, physically and emotionally. She was fierce and strong during those hardships. In America the hardship and struggles were still present, even though very different in type.  She persisted, and imagined a future for her children she never imagined for herself. She is my role model; she is the reason I am here today, and why I’m able to help my community. To be honest, I never imagined I would run for office.  I was very surprised when I ran for the school committee and I’m still in shock about my city council race.

In the elections of 2018 we saw so many women break glass ceilings and make history across the board. All those women are my role models too.

What is your advice to young women who are interested in getting into politics?

When my family and I came to America more than a decade ago, fleeing war and violence in a foreign country, I would have never imagined myself where I am today. This country is full of possibilities and opportunities that nations around the world don’t offer. My advice is to continue to break glass ceilings, and dare to be the first – but make sure you’re not the last.