By Stephanie Harp
Poet, short story writer, activist, and student Shukri Abdirahman lives in Lewiston and is a senior at the University of Maine at Farmington, double majoring in international and global studies and anthropology. One of her favorite classes is public policy. “It’s not just a class for me,” she said. She likes to ask herself, “How can I make best use of this class that talks about public policy that is so important?”
After being nominated by Catholic Charities, she recently became Maine’s representative to the Refugee Congress, a national nonpartisan advocacy organization built and led by former refugees, asylum-seekers, and other vulnerable migrants to promote the well-being and dignity of all vulnerable migrants. Established in 2011, the Refugee Congress informs policy makers about community issues and concerns. Abdirahman loves this real world connection to her public policy class. “I’m just so happy. My life could not have gotten better,” she said. “All of this connects because at the end of the day, the main thing is advocacy for people, and making sure people are heard, and that opportunities are available to people, regardless of immigration status or waiver. I am working on behalf of all refugees: how can policies be changed?”
As with other opportunities in her life, she plans to make the most of her two-year term with Refugee Congress. “Maine has a small refugee population, but I believe in Maine and I love Maine,” she said. “I can see – so bright and clear – the future of Maine: Maine as a state comes together in support of refugees and in honor of refugees, making sure refugees have all the necessary tools to climb the social ladder and achieve the American dream.”
At home in Lewiston, she sees apartments that are old, dirty, and infested. “I want to make a difference about that. I’m trying to work out how to learn so that when I graduate, I can move forward, taking action.” For example, lead poisoning primarily affects refugee children, she said, and she wants to know what can be done about it. A decade ago, her father moved his family from Lewiston to Auburn for better housing because of problems like this.
When she was 12, her father died. Her single mother, busy as she was with six daughters, always stood behind her outspoken middle child. “I love that woman,” Abdirahman said. “She always advocated for me to speak. ‘This is my daughter. I support her,’ she said.”
A year away from being the first in her family to receive a bachelor’s degree, Abdirahman does not hesitate to be vocal. “What I’ve always done is raise awareness. If there’s an issue in the community, I make sure people are talking about it. If I’m talking about it, maybe someone else is inspired and can make a difference.”
She’s especially concerned about growing mental health problems among young people in Lewiston, which include a recent death by suicide. The issues aren’t just among high schoolers. “Middle school kids are suffering from substance abuse and mental health problems. Our children are American [too], and they have to be protected and respected. We have to work to make our kids have a better life,” she said, adding that action taken locally can be a catalyst for change elsewhere. “If you see an issue somewhere here, it’s probably at another place, too. If I were to make one small change in Lewiston, it could inspire someone to make a change in their community.”
During high school, she often attended city council meetings, even when she didn’t understand everything that happened there, and she got involved wherever she could. “I used to volunteer at Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services. Then they hired me as a youth mentor so I could help with the youth in my community. I loved that job,” said Abdirahman. She mentored elementary-age Somali students, helping them with homework and playing soccer with them. “While we were playing, they used to tell me all sorts of stuff. Girls started opening up to me about sexual abuse that was happening in the community.” She understood that the girls knew she was someone they could talk to. “I’m around the same age as them. I’m Somali. I understand the culture. At the end of the day, I grew up in America. I came here when I was 9 years old. I’m trying to see where I can build a bridge.”
In everything she does, she draws on her own experiences. “I remember I got in trouble a lot,” “I would get suspended, I would get attention. [The schools] didn’t know how to work with immigrant students, and I didn’t know how to communicate. My English wasn’t good enough.” Abdirahman is passionate about helping youth. “As a community, we need to come together to figure out how do we build up our youth, encourage our youth? Is there a place kids can go? What do parents need? What do kids need?”
She sees areas where different groups can unite behind common concerns. “Poor whites, poor immigrants. They’re both poor, they’re both struggling” she said, optimistic that people can work together. “This is our state at the end of the day. Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, doesn’t matter. This is the state we all love. Those reasons alone should make us come together. If that’s not working, we need to find other ways.”
In one of her anthropology classes, she learned about the origins of modern policing in 19th-century slave patrols, and about capitalism. “If people actually want to have full equality – and I feel like I might just be an optimist – I feel like everybody should be able to have the same opportunity, whether they go for it or not,” she said. Her current job as project specialist with Catholic Charities of Maine is funded by a Growth, Employment, Action for Refugees, or GEAR, grant. Fedcap Rehabilitation Services, commonly called FEDCAP, is a partner in the project. “I work as a cultural liaison with the immigrant population, making sure I’m connecting local resources to the community, documents are translated, and people understand requirements,” she said. “I love my job because there are so many resources out there that are available to people.”
Beyond graduation, Abdirahman plans to continue to graduate school in government or global policy, or perhaps law school. “I’m not sure yet,” she said. “All I know is that I want to make a difference. And what is the best way to make a difference? Either policy or law. I want to make permanent change, not just speak. I want laws and policies signed.” Will she ever run for office? “Maybe when I’m older, and I can tolerate all the stuff that comes along with politics,” she said.
Abdirahman hopes she’s not the only one who sees such a bright future for the state. “It makes me want to take action right now, so that future is possible. I might just be dreaming, but my dreams are very vivid.”