Deqa Dhalac poses for a portrait at her home in South Portland in 2018. Of becoming the city’s mayor this week, she said, “I’m…really proud of the fact that I’m going to be opening a lot of paths for other folks who look like me.”
(CNN) Deqa Dhalac saw it in their faces when she started campaigning.
Some people, she says, seemed scared to open their doors when she knocked. Others saw her hijab and assumed she didn’t speak English.
But Dhalac kept knocking and telling her story.
South Portland’s other city councilors, who are all White, elected her in a unanimous vote, heaping praise on Dhalac for her dedication to the community and thoughtful consideration of issues.
Dhalac, 53, says her election shows what can be accomplished when people find ways to connect with each other instead of putting up walls.
“People will always have some kind of reservation…but will get to know you, listen to you and see who you are through that,” she says.
But she says that it shouldn’t be. And that’s one reason she ran for office in the first place.
She hopes her election as mayor will inspire others to follow in her footsteps.
“I’m…really proud of the fact that I’m going to be opening a lot of paths for other folks who look like me, especially our young community members, to say, ‘If this woman can do this, actually I can do that,'” Dhalac told the City Council last month after her nomination.
“And also not only for immigrant, first-generation or Black people, but also young, White individuals who may have been afraid or don’t want to be a part of the civic duties that we all have. … I say, ‘Yes, if I can do this, yes, you can do it. We really, really need you, each and every one of you in this beautiful city of ours, to step up.'”
Her Election Marks Multiple Milestones
Dhalac’s inauguration is a milestone for Somali immigrant communities that have grown in size and become more established in states like Maine, Minnesota, Ohio and Washington. As that’s happened, more Somali Americans are taking on roles on local school boards and city councils — and also serving as lawmakers, like Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota.
Dhalac is the first Somali American mayor in the United States, according to New American Leaders, an organization that trains and encourages immigrants to run for office. But the organization says they hope she won’t be the last.