LEWISTON — As she received her high school diploma, Asha Mohamud, 17, wore an orange head scarf concealing her hair, true to her Somali culture.
Mohamud graduated 11th in the Lewiston High School Class of 2011. She'll attend Bates College this fall and plans to become a doctor.
Her family was among the first to move to Lewiston. Not long after they arrived in 2002, she and other immigrants encountered stares, rude questions about the way they dressed, who they were.
Things have changed, she said. Today, Lewiston feels like home.
“I'm in love with the city now,” she said, describing it as welcoming, open and supportive. “It's such a close-knit community. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody's grown up with each other.”
Mohamud was born in Kenya. Her family fled Somalia before she was born.
In Kenya, her father, Hassan Adan, was an engineer; her mother, Qamar Bashir, was an accountant. Mohamud attended a private school in Nairobi and did not grow up in a refugee camp.
The family immigrated to California in 2001, then moved to Lewiston a year later.
“A friend of mine told me I could find a job easily in Maine because I have transferable skills,” said her mother. “But it took me eight months to find a job.” The mother speaks Somali, Swahili, Arabic and English.
Mohamud speaks Somali, Swahili and English.
When she first came here at age 8, Lewiston seemed small, quiet.
It was a struggle being different. In school, other students weren't familiar with her customs and culture, she said. "I used to get the 'why's' and, 'How come you do this differently?'” Her response, Mohamud said, was to calmly explain her culture and where she came from, while learning American culture, "trying to melt in.”
In the years when there were fights between Somali and white youths and false rumors about Somalis getting free cars from the city, the prejudice trickled down to children.
“But mom was going through the same thing in the community,” Mohamud said. “It was a matter of looking up and watching her.”
At that time, her mother worked as an employment specialist at the CareerCenter.
“One day I was getting out of my apartment,” Bashir recalled. A young girl stared at her, curious about her dress. Bashir knelt down, allowing the girl to touch her dress. As the girl did, “her grandfather yelled, 'Don't touch that woman! He used bad words,” Bashir said.
She went to work shaken and upset. But that same day she was at Walmart. A white person in line looked at her and said, “'Oh my God. You're so pretty!' It changed the day.” There are good and bad Somalis, good and bad Americans, she said. “People are totally different.”
Mohamud said she has warm memories of growing up here and of Lewiston schools, especially Longley Elementary. That's where she received the foundation for her education, she said.
“The teachers there were so warm, welcoming, supportive.” One of her favorites was “Mr. G,” Steve Gagne. “I had him for two years. He's an amazing teacher.”
Going to the middle school was tough at first. In the eighth grade, “my school mind kicked in," she said. "I realized I needed to make the honor roll.”
Speaking of her high school experience, she said, “I loved it.” She ran track, was involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters, took early college courses and four advanced classes, AP English, literature, biology and Spanish. She praised her teachers, especially history teacher Jeffrey Sullivan. “He was able to evoke the best out of me. He never settled for mediocre.”
Finishing high school is bittersweet, she said. “I don't want to leave just yet.”
To her mother, graduating “is a dream, but I want her to achieve more,” Bashir said.
“She set the standard for me,” Mohamud said.
There's a saying that it takes a village to raise a child, Bashir said. “It is this community which raised my child.”