LISTEN: South Portland's new mayor Deqa Dhalac recalls her journey from Somalia to local Maine politics
South Portland has a new mayor, and perhaps the door opening for Maine's newer immigrants. Deqa Dhalac, was chosen by the South Portland Council Monday for the post of Mayor. She may be the first Somali American mayor in the country. She spoke with Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz.
*Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Irwin Gratz: First of all, congratulations on your election. I want to explore with you in the next few minutes the path that led you to Monday night, and I want to start all the way back in Somalia. When did you emigrate from there?
Deqa Dhalac: I left my country right before the Civil War in 1990 with the hope of getting somewhere that is safer, because at that time, we knew there was going to be a civil war. But we did not know when and my father, before he passed, he asked my uncles and brothers, and my cousin is to make sure that I'm out of the country before that thing happens, the civil war happens. So I was lucky enough to travel to Italy, and we asked for asylum in Italy. We were about I believe -oh, my goodness, it's been a while - maybe 18 people, and the Italian government did not know what to do with us, because they never seen anything like that. So they kept us in the airport for a few weeks, and said that, if you know anyone, we can release you to that person. So luckily for me, my cousin was there, so I was released to her. And after that, I traveled to United Kingdom and then Canada. And then I get married to my husband. And I ended up coming to United States, late 1992 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Do you remember some of your first impressions of the United States when you got here?
Well, so I spoke fluent English when I came to the United States. We had tutors to teach us, you know, to learn English. So the only surprise that I had was when I first come to United States in Atlanta, Georgia, I did not understand anything people were saying to be honest, because that southern accent, and that southern English were very, very new to me. So my husband will translate for me and say, this is what they say. And I'm like, it's just English, though? It was really fascinating for me to hear that accent.
So when did you get to Maine?
I always wanted to have more education for myself. And I was not really getting there. Being in Atlanta, Georgia, big city, a lot of traffic, three small children, going back and forth to work, sending money back home. So life became like a routine, if you will. And I was like, no, this is not what I want. I want to be engaging with communities. I want to be able to go back to school. So my uncle moved here in Maine. And he said, 'Hey, if you want to, you know, have time to go to school time to go to work, good schools, you have to come to Maine.' So I came and visit him in 2004 and his wife and they lived in Lewiston at the time. Now they are in Seattle, Washington. I was like this is it. I love this small town. It wasn't dead. Don't get me wrong. But it had that small town vibe to it. And we moved here in Lewiston in 2005.
What inspired you to get into local politics?
We were always fascinated by politics and listening to stories that our father was telling us. When I came here in Maine, again, we are a small town here, and this allowed me to get to know a lot of lawmakers, a lot of business people, a lot of community leaders. And with that, I built a good relationship with folks. And a good friend of mine said, 'Hey, Deqa, it'd be really nice for you to get this Emerge Maine training, this will help you down the road, not now, if you want to run for office.' So I took that training, and that really inspired me to do even more in the community. And at the time, [there wasn't] any open position for me to run. So when my city counselor here in District 5, stepped down from his three year term after he served only one year, my phone, my social media, everything blew up people saying this is your time. This is what you need to do, but I had to talk to my kids and you know, I said, 'hey you guys, what do you think? Because there was also a lot of unrest or what was happening at the time and a lot of Islamophobia, a lot of immigrants being you know, ostracized, the Muslim ban and all of those things. So my oldest said, 'I don't want you to do that. Because, you know, you are a Muslim, you're a woman, you are a black, you are an immigrant. You have all of those identities that are no, no, no, no. And I don't want anybody saying anything bad to you, or saying any hateful things to you.' But the two younger ones said, 'If you don't do it, who's going to do it? Because if you do this, it will open doors for a lot of girls who look like you, or dress like you. Or a lot of second generation or first generation Americans who are immigrants, whose parents are immigrants. It will open those doors for them.' So I said [to my oldest], 'Hey, dude, it is a democratic house, so majority rules. We're gonna run.' That's how we did it.