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Somali American Refugee Safiya Khalid Elected to Lewiston Council in Historic Victory

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Safiya Khalid made history on election night when she was elected to the Lewiston, Maine City Council, despite being the target of racist trolls and an online hate campaign.

Khalid, a refugee, is the first Somali American to serve on the Lewiston council. She took nearly 70 percent of the vote, and at 23, she’s the youngest person to ever serve on the council.

An alleged high school photo of Khalid circulated among right-wing social media and gained traction on white nationalist blogs in August. Shortly after that, drama unfolded between Lewiston Democrats when audio was released of city council candidate Walter Hill allegedly being harassed by Lewiston Democratic Party Chair Kiernan Majerus-Collins and Treasurer Owen Cardwell-Copenhefer, who served as treasurer for Khalid’s campaign. The day after Khalid’s opponent dropped out of the race and it appeared she would be running unopposed, Hill entered to run, after previously pledging his support according to the Bangor Daily News.

Lewiston is 88% white and primarily Catholic, and while some negative comments came from a few of its 36,000 residents, Khalid’s campaign mostly drew attention from out-of-state accounts from as far away as Alabama. Tina Hutchinson, administrator for an unofficial city Facebook page called Lewiston Rocks, told the Sun Journal that a majority of the hateful comments she removed concerning Khalid were from non-local accounts.

When Khalid immigrated to the U.S. as a 7-year-old, she and her family arrived in a New Jersey airport not knowing a soul.

“Our case manager forgot about us,” Khalid told the Sun Journal. “We couldn’t speak the language. Everything was very foreign to us. It was like being placed on a different planet, really scary. When my mom saw the terminal was emptying out, she cried.” 

Khalid’s win is a major progressive victory for the city, but she isn’t the first Muslim immigrant to serve in office in Maine. Pious Ali made history in Portland when he was elected to the city council in 2016. And though Ali acknowledged he’s certainly been subjected to some “nasty emails,” he says the hate and death threats Khalid is receiving is on a different level.

“She is facing so many things. We’re both black, we’re both immigrants and we’re both Muslims, but she happens to be a woman and younger,” Ali told the Sun Journal

Despite the negative attention, Khalid has received an outpouring of support from her community on her victory.

Kaley LaQuea is an award–winning print and digital journalist who’s been creating content since 2008. She’s passionate about economic, environmental and social justice. She has an unhealthy relationship with caffeine and two cats: Totoro and Mononoke.