A worldwide audience is listening to University of Southern Maine alumna Safiya Khalid’s story of perseverance.
On Nov. 5, the 2018 USM graduate earned election as the first Somali-American to serve on the city council of Lewiston, Maine. More astonishingly, she earned the seat despite a barrage of racist Internet attacks from around the country.
The fact that she ignored the trolls, and won 70 percent of the vote, has drawn journalists from as far away as Kenya to interview the 23-year-old woman.
“The story is everywhere,” Khalid said. “It’s pretty cool.”
On election night, she was interviewed live on CNN. She was the subject of features in the Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper. And an Associated Press story took Khalid to places far and wide, from California’s Fresno Bee to Georgia’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
She even picked up a congratulatory tweet from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“It was unreal,” said Khalid, who says she’s focused her attention on being ready when she’s sworn in as a city councilor on Jan. 6.
“I got involved to advocate for young people,” she said. “That hasn’t changed.”
And she credits USM for help in developing that perseverance and responsibility that she displayed during the election.
“I worked hard here at USM,” she said during a visit to the Portland campus. “It helped build me to be who I am Today.”
She has an extraordinary background.
Safiya and her family left Somalia when she was 7 years old. They came first to New Jersey. They settled in Lewiston a few months later.
“When my family and I were new to the country, Lewiston offered us a home where we felt like we belonged,” she said. “It was a place full of opportunities.”
After high school, she enrolled at USM. She joined the honors program and studied psychology.
“My favorite class was social psychology,” she said. “It’s the story of people. It’s how we’re all different, but how we’re all connected somehow.”
While she earned her degree as a full-time student, she worked in L.L. Bean, sometimes on the iconic bean boots in the Brunswick manufacturing plant. Meanwhile, she commuted to the Portland campus from her home in Lewiston.
“I never had time to breathe,” she said. The pace never overwhelmed her, though. “I am better for it. I feel like all the hard work and responsibility paid off.”
After graduation, she went to work for Gateway Community Services. She works in offices in Portland and Lewiston.
“I run a youth mentoring program that helps young immigrants that recently arrived in the country,” she said. “We help them find jobs, get educational opportunities and navigate the community.”
As a city councilor, she is hoping to encourage more mentoring in Lewiston schools, something that she’s seen succeed in Portland.
“Now, I am able to give back,” she said. “It is very rewarding.”
Story by Daniel Hartill, portrait image by Alan Bennett / USM Office of Public Affairs