I came to the United States in 2012. Though I now live in Lewiston and work as a community organizer with Maine People’s Alliance, I was born in Djibouti. Over the course of my life, I’ve seen how oppressive governments use fear to keep people from joining together, and how through community organizing and support people are able to make change.
Even in my early teens I remember having conversations — triggered by an assignment to read a book called Tout Bouge mais rien ne change — with other schoolmates and feeling the frustration that the government was not working for the people. The post-colonial political class seemed more interested in ensuring even more power for themselves through divisiveness, tribalism and corruption.
Before coming to the U.S., my perception was that the U.S. democratic system was functioning because of the good intentions of the political class. But since living here, I’ve learned that it’s a constant struggle to make sure that the democratic system works for the people through organizing, calling politicians, voting in elections, protesting bad policies and building up leaders from ordinary citizens and activists on the ground.
Struggling with trauma, building a new life
Since moving to Lewiston with my family, I’ve been lucky to work with many non-profits organizations that provide direct support to people who are in need. I was confronted not only with my own struggles, but also dealt with the struggles of people and communities who were more vulnerable than me.
The first impression I often had in my interactions with new immigrants was fear, hopelessness, and skepticism due to their traumatic past and confusion with their present lives. Many were coming from the dangers of their known world to an unknown, complex environment without any real transition as they became citizens of a new country.
Many cover their shock with a genuine smile that seems to be saying “everything is going well.” But I know their past trauma has not been dealt with because, for many, counseling is not part of their culture. Mental health does not exist as a concept or they fear being stigmatized.
Don’t get me wrong, these families are hard-working. They travel in the snow to jobs at Walmart, LLBean and other faraway warehouses. They are also sending their kids to school and taking care of one another while carrying all these hidden pains. They are farming, building businesses, and founding families and doing everything that Americans do.
In my conversations with folks from different immigrant communities in Lewiston, I have come to understand that almost all of these families are coming from civil war zones. Many are survivors of government-conducted ethnic or tribal cleansing, or have experienced direct persecution from powerful institutions or individuals. Their identity, who they are, was the reason for this trauma and was the reason they’ve lost their homes and loved ones. They are not criminals or outlaws and many still have physical, emotional and mental scars.
These experiences have generated fear of institutions or any kind of structural power. I began to wonder, who is helping these families transition from their oppressed identities to become an integral part of their new home?
With these thoughts, I started volunteering with the Maine People’s Alliance in 2014. I learned the history of MPA organizing, which taught me a completely new perspective of how to empower those who are left behind and whose voices are not heard. I attended chapter meetings in Lewiston, followed the politics that affected immigrant communities in Androscoggin County, discussed candidate endorsements and referendum questions. For the first time in my life, I stepped into a democratic system that was functioning at its full potential.
Three years later, I was hired as a community organizer to work with communities who are going through this transition. My current work consists of redefining the concept of power in the minds of New Mainers, creating spaces where intergenerational conversations take place, identifying issues that affect communities and promoting civic engagement among youth and parents.
Being American, to me, means working together on issues that affect our communities — in our day-to-day lives as well as the for our future generations.