People You Know: Bridging the culture gap for schools and ‘a Lewistona forever’

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LEWISTON — Hawo Abdille is a political campaign volunteer, an activist and the new community relations coordinator for the Lewiston Public Schools.

Some day, she might also like to be mayor.

“I love my Lewiston — I’m always going to be Lewistona forever,” said Abdille, 27, who graduated from Lewiston High School in 2008. “You will see me more, as long as I live in this world and am happy and healthy.”

Born in Somalia, she escaped to Kenya with her family at age 1, when civil war broke out. After years in a refugee camp, Abdille arrived in Columbus, Ohio, at 9 years of age.

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She moved to Maine with her mother in 2006, at the end of her sophomore year, when her mom wanted to be closer to a daughter and grandchildren who lived here.

Petite and demure, Abdille said she’d been shy until college when a friend prodded her, saying if you want to make a difference, you get out there.

“‘You have to be reliable, you have to always be on time with this, show yourself that you can do it,'” she said, repeating her friend’s advice.

The first position that led her out in the community was during a college internship with Healthy Androscoggin. She talked to residents about nutrition, physical health and how to clean up lead dust, something she continued after graduation in a position at Advocates for Children.

“I feel like Lewiston needs to be remodeled again because our kids are being poisoned, slowly,” she said. “I used to advocate for clients to say, ‘My kids have a (lead) level of 50 — that’s way high. Landlord, you have to do your job.'”

It can be hard to know your rights, Abdille said, especially for those new to the country. 

“I used to say, ‘Listen, there’s other places, there’s due process,'” she said. “Sometimes the community is afraid to speak out because they’re afraid they’re going to get evicted; I don’t blame them.”

It was rewarding work she only left when the school position opened up. Abdi Musa had held the job for years as community relations coordinator and left to be an interpreter and translator for the federal government. She took over in October. It’s taken a little time to get her name out.

“Every time I say, I’m new — Abdi Musa, the female one. Here’s my contact information, call me,” Abdille said. “The high needs are here, especially working for the school system, and I feel like they need a woman — the voice of a woman.”

The job has her busy, working with all grade levels. She might be asked by a parent to call their child in sick, to translate or to sit in on a special education meeting to convey the nuances of what’s going on.

“I am the person that bridges the gap between cultures,” Abdille said. “I’m the person when they need a question regarding sensitive stuff, they come to me. I’m not a parent, but it might be hard for them to say, ‘Hey, I think your child might be qualified for special ed.’ Sometimes it’s hard for them to accept it, but at the end of the day, parents want to do well for their child, and they accept the help from the school.”

Outside the office, Abdille volunteers with the Maine People’s Alliance and was nominated by Mayor Robert Macdonald for the city’s immigrant and refugee integration and policy development working group, which meets every two weeks.

“We’re trying to open, one day, a welcome center in Lewiston,” Abdille said, but there’s a lot of work that leads up to that.

“I care about issues, especially people who are underserved and people who have less voice,” she said. “Let’s say a bill passed. If I want to march outside, I’ll march outside.”

Running for city council or mayor is in her future plans, maybe in her 30s, she said.

kskelton@sunjournal.com

Hawo Abdille works as the community relations coordinator for the Lewiston Public Schools, a position she started last October.

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