South Portland's new Somali-American mayor hopes to be an inspiration for young refugees
Deqa Dhalac was sworn in as the new mayor of South Portland Monday night, making her one of the first Somali-American mayors in the country.
Dhalac was first elected to the South Portland City Council three years ago, but has long worked in community-building roles: as an activist, social worker, and currently, as the family engagement and cultural responsiveness specialist for the Maine Department of Education. She's lived in South Portland for more than a decade, following stints in Lewiston and Atlanta after emigrating to the U.S. from Somalia in 1992.
Her new role has limited power beyond the normal duties of a city councilor, but it does include facilitating meetings and handling ceremonial duties. And Dhalac hopes that her presence as a public face of the city can lead younger generations of immigrants and refugees to run for office.
"Kids who are coming from refugee camps can look at me and say, if she did it, I can do it. So that's the other reason I'm doing this public service — so our communities and young people can step up and do the same thing that we're doing," she said.
In recent years, several immigrants have been elected to public office across Maine, including in Portland, Bangor and Westbrook. Some have faced pushback.
Safiya Khalid was elected to the Lewiston City Council two years ago, but earlier this year announced that she wouldn't run for re-election, saying that, "people of color are consistently met with hatred" when they try to engage with the political process, and she planned to work to create a more inclusive city.
In South Portland, Dhalac says she's proud that her fellow councilors chose her for the new role, and she feels it's sign of the welcoming and inclusive nature of the city.
"Tonight shows that we are a welcoming city, a welcoming state. It's home, and I love it, and I'm over the moon with excitement," she said.
Dozens of community members came out to support Dhalac's inauguration at South Portland High School on Monday, including Abdullahi Ahmed, a fellow Somali-American immigrant and co-principal of Portland's Deering High School. He views Dhalac's election as an historic one for both the region and the Somali-American community.
"I think this is significant for Somali-Americans all over the country, And all over the world. It's a really big thing. It's historical for us. And uplifting, as well," he said.
Over the next year, Dhalac says her priorities as mayor are largely aligned with the rest of the city council. That includes addressing climate change, adding more affordable housing, and increasing diversity and equity across the city.