Thirty years ago, Deqa Dhalac fled her homeland of Somalia, right before the start of a devastating civil war which still lingers on. Last December, she made history when she became America’s first Somali American mayor; South Portland’s 11th woman mayor (the city’s first female mayor was in 1985); and the first African, Muslim, Somali American mayor in Maine and South Portland—a city where 90 percent of the population is white.
Her election last year as mayor was the culmination of a lifetime of community activism and civic duty—including the creation of a Somali community center in Lewiston, Maine, where she led community conversations about Islamaphobia; her work in the Maine Department of Education; her role as board president of Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition and board member of Maine Women’s Fund; and over five years on the South Portland City Council. (If that’s not enough, Dhalac also has two master’s degrees in development policy practice and social work, and speaks three languages: English, Italian and Arabic.)
After fleeing Somalia in the early ’90s, Dhalac and her family landed in Atlanta, Ga., where she lived for 12 years. She settled in Maine in 2005. Dhalac’s initial run for elected office was in 2018 for city council, a decision triggered by former President Trump’s visit to Maine and his “unkind words regarding the immigrants.” “We organized a big rally and so many people expressed their solidarity with the immigrants—as neighbors who care about us. This was a boost for me to do more,” she said.
Dhalac attributes the success of her campaign to these years of community-building, “showing up for people in need,” serving on boards and committees, and standing up for immigrants, workers, LGBTQ Americans and other marginalized communities. She also says achieving the firsts she represents was not a phenomenon—her win is because of those “who worked behind the scenes,” from her website designer and social media manager, to the canvassers who knocked on doors, to Kara Auclaire who managed her campaign, and a “whole lot of community” who supported, encouraged and helped. Her win is their win, she says.
“It says a lot when six white Americans support and elect a Black Muslim immigrant to be their mayor,” said Dhalac about other South Portland City Council members. “I hope I will do justice for this big job. I’m lucky to have a council that supports me, a very supportive staff, family in Maine, and in Somalia and across the U.S. and Europe who celebrated my win—which is their win.”
Influenced By Political Activist Parents and Women’s Rights Champions
Dhalac was born in Somalia’s capital city of Mogadishu in a middle-class family that prioritized education for their children. Her name, Deqa, carries multiple meanings: a “generous person,” a “gift from God,” and one who “completed our family.”
Dhalac says her father was a well-educated political activist, and her mother an “extremely intelligent” homemaker. Together they provided provided Deqa—their only daughter—and her two brothers ample opportunities to achieve higher education. The children studied English and Italian—the languages of colonizers in Somalia’s North and South respectively—and Arabic, the language spoken by the country’s Muslims. After earning a degree in accounting, Dhalac lived through the early reverberations of a civil war, before leaving her homeland.
Last January, Somalia marked 30 years of conflict since the fall of President Siad Barre’s government, which ignited civil war in the region. In the past few years there’s been relative calm as Islamist militants, Al Shabab, were driven out of large centers.
“Before the 1990s, Somali women were driving cars and motorcycles. They held high, powerful government positions. Somalia was a beautiful place to live,” Dhalac said.
Following the civil war, Al Shabab—”the youth” in Arabic—took control. Seeking to control territory within Somalia to establish their own rigid Shariah law, they prohibited women from attending schools. The ongoing war has left over 2.9 million internally displaced people in Somalia.
Adopting a New Land With Ease
Before landing in the Somali community in Atlanta, Dhalac traveled as an asylum seeker through Italy and Canada. Her fluency in English made it easier for her to adapt to and navigate through her new communities. In the U.S., she started work as an interpreter, translating legal paperwork and helping Somali refugees settle. She also married a Somali U.S. citizen and had three children—two sons and a daughter, just like her parents.
Dhalac moved to Lewiston, Maine, in 2005. She joined her uncle’s large Somali network, who encouraged her to pursue her education and become active in her new community. Dhalac eventually helped to create a Somali community center, where she and others organized the immigrant population to become registered voters and made sure they knew their rights as U.S. citizens.
“The most gratifying thing in working with refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers is the gratitude and appreciation they have for the help they receive,” Dhalac told Ms. “Being their eyes and ears and voice is really the gratitude I get from doing my job.”
Navigating Life As a Black, Woman Mayor
Dhalac is realistic about life as a woman of color in the public eye, and has experienced her fair share of racism and harassment.
“I experience racism, of course,” she told Ms. “When I became a city councilor, I started getting hate emails and mail. At a recent weekly meeting with our city manager reviewing our agenda and new business items, the manager said to me, ‘By the way, Mayor, we got one more hate mail—what do you want me to do with it?’ I said, ‘Add it to the pile.”
“Sometimes racism gets to me. I question why somebody would just hate your religion, your looks, your skin, your ethnicity? It makes no sense, especially if they don’t know who I am,” she continued. “It’s hard, but it comes with the territory. What can you do?”
She manages to brush off those “who just hate, without knowing who” she is, and who are not part of her Maine or South Portland community—focusing on “doing the best” while “blocking the hate.”
As an elected official, Dhalac’s main areas of focus are local environmental issues, including large storage and oil facilities in her city; ensuring city departments employ a diverse workforce; offering social services programs to meet the needs of asylum seekers living in city hotels; and navigating the economic dent COVID left in the city’s economy.
Dhalac says she’s proud of her daughter, Saharla, who teases her mother for following her into politics, since Saharla’s political life started for her in the fifth grade. Later, as a high school student, she served as a student representative on the school board.
“Saharla is a woman of her own, holding her Somali immigrant culture, and as an American born has her American heritage as well,” said Dhalac about her daughter, now a second-year political science major at Boston’s Emmanuel College.
Dhalac jokes that her Somali community back home thinks she owns “half of the U.S.” and is “paid millions of dollars.” Instead, as the mayor of South Portland, Dhalac says she sees herself as a public servant—but just one singular member in a large, diverse community.
“I see myself as a common person. I can’t make a policy by myself without my city councilors and others or make good decisions for the whole city of South Portland.”