Connecting communities


Hassan Sheleh, 21, doesn’t remember his hometown in Somalia.

He was too young when his family fled the civil war, finding itself in a massive refugee camp on the Kenyan boarder in the city of Dadaab.

“I grew up in the camp,” Sheleh said, speaking in flawless English. “I hope to return one day to Somalia.” He wants to see where he and his parents were born.

He wants to be an American, too.

Sheleh is studying at Central Maine Community College and plans to switch to the University of Southern Maine in the fall. He hopes to be a doctor.

“I know how hard it is,” he said, sighing with relief one day after a grueling anatomy final exam. “It will be a lot of hard work.”

It’s the kind of self-awareness he hopes to share with others.

On Monday, Sheleh and another local Red Cross volunteer, Sudanese immigrant Elmuatz Abdelrahim, will represent Maine at a national conference.

The aim: connecting African immigrants and refugees to their adopted communities in the United States.

After the three-day conference — hosted in Arlington, Va., by the Ethiopian Community Development Council — the men plan to meet with national leaders from the American Red Cross.

They hope to add what they learn at the conference to their experience in Lewiston-Auburn’s immigrant community.

“We want to develop an outreach plan,” said Abdelrahim, a microbiologist from Sudan who was schooled in India. The married father works for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

He believes the Red Cross has an advantage in working with many immigrants. In many cases, immigrants have been helped before by the International Red Cross.

The organization has less fear associated with it than an arm of the government might, he said.

Many people are still learning that the Red Cross exists in a place without civil wars or earthquakes, Sheleh said.

“They don’t know we are here,” he said.

Both men are hoping to change that.

Though they each do other volunteer jobs, the one they like the most is their courier duty.

Just as the Red Cross helps send messages between home and U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, it also helps people communicate between the U.S. and refugee camps, worldwide.

Both men, using their skills in Arabic, help deliver messages that come into Lewiston’s United Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross.

The chapter office receives about 50 such messages a year, said Eric Lynes, the local director of emergency services.

Sheleh smiled as he recalled his deliveries, sometimes connecting family members who have not spoken for more than a year.

It’s a simple service for folks who can feel disconnected, particularly the older people who are less likely to learn English.

“They need the bridges that connect them,” Sheleh said.

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