Ahmed Sheikh, left, and Hassan Abdi stand in front of a Longley Elementary School mural. The political newcomers ran for the Lewiston School Committee, along with Safiya Khalid. While all three lost, their names being on the ballot represents a high for the Somali community, which observers say is a positive move for Lewiston. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
LEWISTON — The city had three candidates from the Somali community on the local ballot Election Day, each a political newcomer.
All three lost their bids for the School Committee, but three people from the community on the ballot marks a high. Before this year, some elections had one immigrant candidate, and most years there was none.
Tuesday’s results show incumbent at-large candidate Megan Parks received 6,694 votes; challenger Safiya Khalid received 2,619.
In Ward 1, Renee Courtemanche got 775 votes to Ahmed Sheikh’s 516 votes; and Ward 5 incumbent Luke Jensen won with 409 votes to Hassan Abdi’s 291 votes.
Khalid, Sheikh and Abdi are all in their 20s, products of the Lewiston School Department. Each is a recent graduate of Lewiston High School.
Watching the Somali community grow “is like history repeating itself,” said Rita Dube, founder and former executive director of the Dolard & Priscilla Gendron Franco Center.
It took years for the French Canadian immigrants to find a place in society, she said.
“They were not accepted at first, but slowly succeeded in finding work, learning the language and becoming productive members of the community,” Dube said. “I see this happening with the Somalis.”
Many excel in school, are excellent athletes and more Somali businesses are popping up everywhere, Dube said. “This last election shows how they are climbing their way up to the successes the Francos have had.”
Rilwan Osman, executive director of Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services, said his community is not only producing more candidates, it’s producing a growing voter bloc.
Some 2,500 members of the immigrant community were eligible to vote this year, a number that is rising with every election as more gain citizenship, Osman said.
“Every week, we have at least one individual who is getting citizenship or applying to become a citizen,” he said. Last week, one parent became a citizen. On Monday another passed the citizenship interview.
“We have also seen more parents coming to our citizenship classes” even though some have not lived in the United States for five years, a requirement for citizenship. They are enrolling to learn and get ready, he said.
He expects there will be more candidates from the immigrant community, and is excited that Hassan, Sheikh and Khalid ran.
“It is time for the community to integrate and be part of the broader community, and this is the best way,” Osman said.
Even though they didn’t win, “from our community’s perspective, they are winners.”
Community leader ZamZam Mohamud agreed. The great part of democracy is “everybody has a chance,” she said. The candidates didn’t want to lose, but seeking public office “is positive. The young generation is coming up, which is great.”
Central Maine Community College’s Roger Philippon, dean of communications and a former Lewiston city councilor, predicted the community will see a Somali candidate win office in the near future.
“We have a large number of Somali students here at CMCC,” he said. “More are becoming actively involved in campus life through the Student Senate, the Muslim Student Association, the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and the TRIO (student support services) program.”
After years of veteran members serving on the school board, often with no opposition during elections, in recent years there’s been increased interest, Superintendent Bill Webster said.
This year one race, Ward 6, had no candidate, but half of the eight races were contested.
“There’s greater public awareness of the school board with the issues we face in schools,” Webster said, including student tests, teacher certification and proficiency-based diplomas.
With so many Lewiston students from immigrant families — 25 percent of the student population — it’s good to see more candidates represent that diversity, Webster said.
“We need the active involvement of all our families in the entire community,” he said.
Political newcomer Safiya Khalid challenged incumbent Megan Parks for the at-large Lewiston School Committee seat. More members of the Somali community are getting involved in civic service, officials say.