Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Deqa Dhalac is the first Somali-American mayor in the United States

Deqa Dhalac, who fled Mogadishu 31 years ago, recently became the first Somali-American mayor in the United States.
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Deqa Dhalac, who fled Mogadishu 31 years ago, recently became the first Somali-American mayor in the United States.

When Deqa Dhalac was writing her inaugural speech after being elected as mayor of South Portland, Maine, she went searching for an inspirational quote for the end. She considered Barack Obama, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa – and then her mom called from Mogadishu, Somalia.

"She reminded me of a poem or prayer that she recited for me when I entered high school," Dhalac said.

Her mother asked God to surround her with prayer and blessings and to give her the gift of long life. "In English, it says, 'My dear daughter ... I beg God for you to be the leader of many ethnicities ... and help those in need with the pride of your father.'".

In that moment, Dhalac found her conclusion.

Dhalac fled Somalia some 30 years ago, as the country descended into civil war. Earlier this month, she became this country's first Somali-American mayor, chosen by the South Portland City Council to lead a city that's 90% white, according to Census data.

Dhalac is the eleventh woman to hold the position, since the first female mayor was selected in 1985. Dhalac was elected to City Council in 2018. She has lived in South Portland for more than a decade, after making her way to Maine from Atlanta, Georgia, where she was resettled in the United States as a refugee.

In the early 2000s, hundreds of Somali refugees, like Dhalac, left the cities where they had been relocated, drawn to Maine, in part by more affordable housing. Dhalac credits her election to a decade of hard work building relationships in her community.

"Getting to know people in all walks of life, so people know me and said [when I was elected], she's not mayor for me, she's my friend, which really makes me humbled," Dhalac said.

Continuing to connect with people will guide her term as mayor, Dhalac said, even when people are not receptive. Dhalac, who is Muslim, recalled that when a wave of Islamophobia swept her state a few years ago, she helped bring the community together in conversation.

"One woman stood up, a white woman, and said all Muslims are terrorists. And instead of calling her out, we called her in and said, let's talk about it," she said.

"Because this person might never know that I am not a terrorist, that my kids are not terrorists, that my friends are not terrorists, but that we are part of this fabric of this country."

Dhalac, who works for the Maine Department of Education, focusing on family engagement and cultural responsiveness, said she never dreamed of running for office, but through her volunteer work realized, "if I don't do this, who's going to?"

"So it's a long journey, but only in this country, only in this amazing country can you have the opportunity to become a mayor from a country that is still going through a civil war that I came from."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.