As Muslim Mainers respond to Donald Trump’s comments about their communities, let’s take a closer look.
This is the second in a series of profiles of Muslims who have made Maine their home. To read the first, about author and educator Reza Jalali, click here.
Shukri Abasheikh, or Mama Shukri, as she is known by many in the community, assists a customer at her small business, the Mogadishu store.
Customers can find anything from camel and goat meat to spices and traditional clothes. Yusri Akash, a regular customer, says other stores just don’t have as large of a selection.
“She has a lot of varieties in this store and that’s why there are a lot of customers,” he says.
When she’s not at the cash register, Abasheikh restocks shelves, manages the finances or directs the store’s kitchen staff. She oversees the entire operation. She’s constantly busy, but she loves her work.
“And always my dream, when I come Lewiston, I like one day open store, because my family businesspeople in Somali,” she says.
Abasheikh’s family lost their home and business during the Somali Civil War of the late ’80s. They fled to Kenya in 1990 and lived in a refugee camp for nearly a decade, before being resettled to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1999.
Abasheikh did not like the chaos and congestion of the big city. She wanted to live and raise a family in a small and safe community, which is what attracted her to Lewiston. The move wasn’t easy, however.
“2002 really is very difficult when I move Atlanta till here I came car, 30 hour drive, and when I came Lewiston, I don’t have any money and I don’t speak English,” she says.
And they arrived in the same year that Mayor Larry Raymond wrote his infamous letter to the Somali community, complaining that the city’s resources were strained and could not handle any more refugees. This created a hostile environment for these new Mainers. They were harassed and threatened, says Fatuma Hussein, founder of United Somali Women of Maine and an organizer at the time.
But, Hussein recalls, the Somali community refused to be intimidated.
“I remember myself saying, over and over, the sooner you get used to us living here, the sooner we can all get along and create this vibrant community that we are all envisioning,” she says.
Over a decade later, that vision of a vibrant community is being realized in places like Lisbon Street. Once plagued by empty storefronts, this downtown stretch bustles with Somali-owned businesses. Mogadishu store was one of the first to open in 2006, and now it’s among the most popular, which Hussein attributes to her friend’s hard work and determination.
“Imagine not having formal education and running a successful business. And Mama Shukri worked day and night, long hours,” she says.
Despite the success of her business, Abasheikh has no plans of slowing down. She is driven to make a better life for her eight children, and it’s a mission in which she takes great pride.
“Four of my children, they graduate Lewiston High School,” she says. “Now one is an accountant, one is doctor in Michigan, one is going … to Georgia State University. Some they helping me for the store.”
A lot has changed since Abasheikh first moved to Lewiston. She has regained a sense of stability and independence. And even as the national political dialogue has intensified some of its focus on Muslims in America, Abasheikh says she now feels very much at home in Lewiston.
“City is safe. We don’t get any problem. Children play outside and come anytime home. We don’t get any problem,” she says.
On the front windowsill of the Mogadishu store, an American flag and a Somali flag hang side by side, a fitting metaphor for Abasheikh’s life. Her store is now a physical representation of the economic and cultural vitality that has been brought to the area.
Once considered a burden, Abasheikh is proving that her community may just be one Lewiston’s greatest assets.