LEWISTON — Maka Mohamed named her first three daughters Fartun, Nimo and Halima, traditional Somali names. But she named her fourth child Bill.
Even though the American name sticks out in Somali circles, she gave her son the name to show her gratitude to a pastor and his wife who helped her when she was an anxious and bewildered recent immigrant in a strange country.
Today Bill, 7, is a first-grader at Montello Elementary School. He loves to color and play hide and seek. Life is good, Mohamed said. But it wasn't always that way.
In 2004, Mohamed's family arrived in Nashville, Tenn., from a refugee camp in Kenya, where they fled to escape war-torn Somalia. But by 2005, there was trouble.
A refugee resettlement agency in Nashville told Mohamed's family they would stop getting assistance because her husband lost his job stocking groceries.
“He didn't speak English, so he couldn't do the job,” Mohamed said through Montello school English Language Learner tutor and interpreter Bayissa Mulat. “He didn't know where the boxes went.”
Neither she nor her husband knew the language, so they didn't know how to apply for a job. When Mohamed went into a grocery store, she was confused about whether or not she was buying kosher food — or even if the food was meant for human consumption.
Initially, the family got some help from the Nashville Somali community. But soon, with three young children and a fourth on the way, she was behind on the rent and was about to be evicted, Mohamed said.
One day, when she was outside her apartment with her children, she was approached by Bill and Julia, a white, middle-aged couple who had brought along an interpreter. Bill introduced himself as a pastor of a local church and asked her if she needed some help.
Mohamed was skeptical. She said she did need help, but wouldn't accept assistance if she had to change her religion. They assured her that this wasn't their motive.
“They said, 'We will help you with everything, rent, electricity, diapers,'” she said.
Bill and Julia went with her to the landlord's office and announced they'd be paying the rent. Her name was taken off the eviction list.
About the same time, Mohamed and her husband had a falling out. She became a single mother with no extended family nearby. Bill and Julia took over.
“They helped with a lot of stuff,” she said. They taught her about money, what a $1 bill was worth versus a $5 bill. “They took me to Arab stores so I could buy halal (food in keeping with Muslim religion). They came to my house when they were not working to teach me English. They never asked about religion or expressed the goodness of their faith. They were generous people.”
In the fall, they bought her children boots and jackets.
When it was time for her to give birth to her son, Bill and Julia were with her at the hospital. After the baby was born, Mohamed was asked what she wanted to name the baby. “Bill,” she answered.
Bill and Julia were touched.
“They were very good people,” Mohamed said. “I've never met anyone like them. They are people I love from the bottom of my heart. What Bill and Julia did for me, they became my mother and father.”
They continued to help her until 2008, when Mohamed moved to Maine to be close to family.
As many reflect on their blessings today, Mohamed said she's thankful for Bill and Julia and her life in Lewiston. She's also grateful that the United States government gave her the opportunity to come here.
In Africa, children walk to school barefoot, attend school all day without eating and come home hungry, she said. Because it costs money to go to high school in Africa, families often must choose which of their children will go.
In the United States, all children go to school and “the kids can grow up to be anything they want to be here,” she said. “There's no war. There's peace. The kids are learning English. They can prosper and succeed here.”
Today, Mohamed attends adult education. She hopes to go to college and study health care.
As for her son Bill, she said, “I want him to go to school, graduate from high school, go to college and do what he's good at.”