Deqa Dhalac was 21 when she emigrated to the U.S. in 1992 as Somalia descended into civil war. She lived in Atlanta, married and became a U.S. citizen before moving to Maine. This week, she made history as the first Black mayor of South Portland, Maine. Dhalac is also believed to be the first Somali American mayor in the United States.
She was selected by her six fellow City Council members to serve as mayor for the next year. The six city councilors, who are all White, elected her in a unanimous vote on Monday night. “I’m feeling absolutely grateful, and I’m honored, and I’m humbled for the people of South Portland to choose me and the councilors to choose me,” the Somali American said to reporters. “It says this city is an inclusive city, it’s a city that welcomes folks who are, like me, coming from different countries in the world.”
Maine is the whitest state in the country and South Portland is roughly 90% White. Hence, many are surprised that Dhalac has achieved this feat. But she is not, and doesn’t want anyone to be. She said she hopes her election as mayor will open a lot of paths for other folks who look like her and who may have been afraid to be a part of civic duties to step up into their own leadership journey.
About 6,000 Somalis currently live in Maine following a wave of migration that began in the early 2000s, according to the South Portland Historical Society. The state has not always received them with joy though. In 2002, the mayor of Lewiston, Maine, wrote an open letter telling Somali immigrants not to come to his city. However, Dhalac said she has met very good and welcoming people ever since she arrived in Maine. She has even noticed how Somalis and other immigrants are taking on leadership positions in the state lately.
And now that she’s been elected mayor of South Portland, Maine, she hopes to increase diversity and equity across the city, address issues about climate change and help provide more affordable housing in the city that is home to about 25,000 people.
Growing up in Mogadishu, Somalia, Dhalac was influenced by her pro-democracy activist father who got involved in a coup before she was born and was later jailed many times for criticizing the dictatorial government. She said her father spoke to the family almost every time about the need for democracy. Her parents prioritized education, so she was even given private language instruction — English, Italian and Arabic — apart from her regular studies and later earned an accounting degree.
In the 1990s when Somalia sank into a civil war, Dhalac’s parents, like many politically active people in Somalia, fled the country with Dhalac and her siblings. Dhalac first traveled to Italy, then to England and Canada before settling in Atlanta in 1992, where she got married and had three children. She would later relocate her family to Lewiston, Maine, before moving again to nearby South Portland.
Dhalac has said that while working for hotels in Atlanta, she met other Somali immigrants. By and by, she started organizing fellow immigrants to become citizens and vote. While getting involved in community building, education and counseling, she decided to go back to school, earning a master’s degree in Development Policy and Practice at the University of New Hampshire and then a second master’s degree in Social Work from the University of New England.
The Somali American would become a dynamic community leader. Still, she never dreamed of running for public office until Donald Trump became president. She joined protesters at a 2016 rally after Trump made comments that seemed to attack Somali immigrants. The following year, she participated in a protest against White supremacy.
In 2018, members of her community encouraged her to run for a seat on the South Portland City Council. She consulted her children. Being a Muslim immigrant woman of color, her oldest child was concerned about her getting into the race but her two other children encouraged her to do so. That year, she ran against a local business owner and won, making history as the first African American and first Muslim elected to the council. She ran unopposed for a second term in 2020.
The city council selects from among its members who will be mayor, and last month, Dhalac’s fellow council members unanimously supported her nomination. On Monday, they voted to make it official.
“You are an example of what human spirit can deliver, coming to the U.S. as a refugee and making a new life, raising kids, enlisting to serve others and benefit humanity,” Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed, a principal at Deering High School in Portland, who is also from Somalia, said during opening remarks before the vote to make Dhalac mayor.
Dhalac, a social worker, currently works for the Maine Department of Education on family engagement and cultural responsiveness. Being mayor of South Portland is a part-time job and she will earn the $3,000 stipend all council members receive, according to WMTW.
“So, I better keep my day job,” Dhalac told WMTW.
In recent times, Somali immigrant communities have increased and become more established in not only Maine, but in other states like Minnesota, Ohio and Washington, CNN reported. More Somali Americans are therefore taking on leadership roles including being on numerous boards and city councils or serving as lawmakers like Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota.