Muslim in Maine: Coping with mistrust, counting on faith, community

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PORTLAND — On the morning of Nov. 16, 2015, Fahmo Ahmed walked from her apartment on Bartlett Street in Lewiston to a downtown bus stop.

It was a Monday, and like so many other Americans, she was already bracing herself for the week ahead. It was cold outside, and she had to get up early that morning for classes at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston campus.

But it was no ordinary Monday. The Friday before, three coordinated groups of terrorists had killed 130 people, and wounded hundreds others, in a brutal attack on the city and suburbs of Paris, France. The Islamic State militant group, or ISIS, later claimed responsibility.

Paris was on Ahmed’s mind as she waited at the chilly bus stop.

Ahmed, 28, is originally from Somalia. On that day, as on all days, she was wearing a headscarf, which is traditional for Muslim women from her country.

She was soon approached by two middle-aged women she did not know. They were both white, and they started pointing at her headscarf and screaming at her.

“They said to me, ‘why are you wearing this, what are you hiding?'” Ahmed recalled in an interview.

“They called me a terrorist, a daughter of ISIS,” she said.

Ahmed, who often says “you’re never going to meet an American prouder than me,” wasn’t going to take it.

“If you’re ignorant enough to associate all Muslims with ISIS, I’m not ignorant enough to associate all Christians with the KKK,” she fired back.

“They went on and on,” she said, yelling close to her face and pointing to her headscarf. “(Eventually) I’m like, not my circus, not my monkeys, I’m outta here.”

The women continued to follow her as she walked away, she said, hurling Islamophobic slurs in her wake.

She waited until they got on the bus, and then took the next one to school. She was late to her classes.

Fahmo Ahmed, 28, adjusts her coat to protect her hijab from the rain April 2 in downtown Lewiston: “You’re never going to meet an American prouder than me.” (Roger S. Duncan / For The Forecaster)

Ahmed is a Somali in a city that is almost 90 percent white, in a state that is famously the “whitest” in the nation. Fear and suspicion, fueled by domestic politics and events abroad, make her an easy target.

But Maine is evolving. New storefronts, restaurants, and names on election ballots reflect a new type of Mainer, and they are changing the fabric of the state in their effort to build a home.

‘New Mainers’

According to the latest Census data, people identifying as white make up 95 percent of Maine’s population. But the number of residents from other countries is climbing.

The state’s foreign-born population, 2.9 percent in 2000, grew to 3.5 percent, in 2014.

The increase is driven primarily by immigrants from Asian and African countries; from 2000 to 2014, their numbers increased by 73 and 513 percent, respectively.

Reza Jalali, a writer and professor at the University of Southern Maine, estimated there are between 5,000 and 6,000 Muslims in Maine. The majority are immigrants who fled conflict zones like Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, Ghana, Afghanistan, Iran, Kenya, Bosnia, and Kosovo, Jalali wrote in a recent paper for the Maine Policy Review.

These “new Mainers,” to use Jalali’s term, are creating new institutions. There are now 10 mosques in Maine, and Jalali estimates there are 12 Muslim student associations across the state, at the major public universities and at Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby colleges.

Muslims hold public office, serve in police departments, and are recruited by some of Maine’s largest private companies.

But the change has not come without these new immigrants – like generations of newcomers from Canada and Europe before them – being targeted by people who do not understand or look like them.

In May 2011, after the death of Osama bin Laden, unknown vandals spray-painted phrases like “Go Home,” and “Osama Today Islam Tomorow” (sic) across the walls of the Maine Muslim Community Center, a mosque on Anderson Street in Portland.

In the summer of 2006, a man rolled a frozen pig’s head into a Lewiston storefront mosque while several men were kneeling in prayer. He was charged with desecrating a place of worship.

Last April, an unknown man wearing a black hoodie was seen spray-painting a vulgar slur referencing Allah on the walls of the Portland Halaal Market on St. John Street.

These acts of hate are rooted in pervasive stereotypes. In reality, the day-to-day lives of Maine’s new Muslim residents are as routine as any, rooted in patterns of family, faith, community, and work.

73 Portland St.

Just before noon on a Friday in February, hundreds of people begin to descend on a building on Portland Street marked only by its number, 73.

They park their cars on the surrounding side streets, or come on foot, from offices, stores, and restaurants in downtown Portland. Two yellow taxis are stopped out front.

For Muslims in Portland, and around the world, Friday at noon marks Jumu’ah, the most important prayer of the week.

Men enter the main room of the Islamic Society of Portland, after taking their shoes off at the door. They kneel on the soft red and gold carpet, facing east towards Islam’s holy city, Mecca. The aroma of sweet incense fills the air.

On the far end of the room, a man wearing traditional robes and a Carhartt beanie bends to the floor, softly whispering prayers. Women and children are here, too, but in a separate room. It is common for men and women to pray separately, although it is not a religious requirement, according to Muslim scholar Jalali, who said the practice is based in cultural views of male and female modesty.

By the time the group prayer begins, about 300 people fill the building, according to Ahmad Yusef, the Islamic Society’s president.

“We are about more than 10 nationalities (here),” Yusef said after the prayers. “What gathers us is Islam.”

Leading prayers that day was Ibrahim Sarag, of Sudan. He wore white robes and spoke to the packed crowd in Arabic and English.

Ibrahim Sarag, from Sudan, delivers a sermon Feb. 12 at the Islamic Society of Portland. “When we promote tolerance,” he said, “we prevail.” (Roger S. Duncan / For The Forecaster)

Sarag began his sermon, or khutbah, with an anecdote. He spoke of his 12-year-old daughter, who just came to Maine from Sudan. She has started learning English in public school, and recently came home puzzled.

“She said … ‘why do people keep wasting time and money on us? We are not even American,'” he recalled. He asked her what she meant by “waste,” and if she wanted to return to Sudan.

“‘No,'” he said she replied. “‘I want to go to Harvard and work for the government.'”

“This is a family story that has religious dimensions,” Sarag told the worshippers.

The “name of the game,” he said, is to be “hard working … and (get) a good education for your children. … When we promote tolerance, we prevail. Only by ethics and morality Islam was spread.”

After the prayers, worshippers gathered in another room to purchase $1 brown bags of samosas, small fried pastries stuffed with spiced meat.

Mohamud Barre, a prayer attendee and the founder of the Maine Access Immigrant Network, said that every week different families make and donate the samosas.

The sales “help us pay the mortgage,” he said, smiling. Barre comes from his office on Oxford Street to pray at the mosque, or masjid, two or three days a week.

Yusef, the Islamic Society’s president, said the mosque has been on Portland Street since 2007. It draws the biggest crowds for Friday prayers, and on Islam’s holy days, like Ramadan.

The majority of the worshippers are Sunni Muslims, he said, though some Shia Muslims come in occasionally for one of the five daily prayers.

The masjid is a “community,” he said. “We feel safe.”

But prayer does not look the same for all Muslims in Maine.

Qur’ans, backpacks, neuroscience

On another Friday afternoon, about 30 miles up the coast, a small group of Bowdoin College students gathered for Friday prayers. Their place of worship is not a mosque, but a small room in a college-owned building.

The school’s Muslim Student Association received permission last year to convert the room, barely larger than a walk-in closet, into a prayer space.

“It was literally just like this old, grungy room last year, but we worked hard to make it very comfortable,” said Mariama Sowe, a sophomore at Bowdoin and the association’s president.

Sowe, who plans to major in neuroscience and minor in classics, was born in Sierra Leone, and grew up in Atlanta. She and her classmates repainted the walls of the prayer room, brought in a bookshelf of Qur’ans, and hung strands of string lights.

On this Friday in late January, five students squeezed into the prayer room. They left their backpacks out in the hall, and laid out rugs diagonally across the floor.

A group of Bowdoin College Muslim students gather in a small prayer room at 30 College St. for Friday prayers Jan. 29. Reza Jalali, left, is an adviser. He calls gathering places like this one “homesick mosques.” (Roger S. Duncan / For The Forecaster)

Irfan Alam, a sophomore from Austin, Texas, said usually no more than eight students gather to pray on Fridays, depending on their class schedules.

“The idea is to congregate with a few other Muslims,” he said. “(Friday prayer) helps clear your thoughts, and reminds you of … what faith means to you.”

With the all the stresses of college, “you don’t think about your faith as much here, normally,” he added.

Sermons are delivered by Mohammad Irfan, a computer science professor at the college.

“One finals week,” Alam recalled, “Professor Irfan talked about what the Qu’ran says about excellence … and tied that into motivating us for finals.”

Sowe estimated there are about 30 Muslim students at Bowdoin. A little less than half are active in the MSA.

Apart from praying together on Fridays, the MSA organizes events like henna parties and movies to share their traditions and experiences with those who may not know much about Islam.

After the Paris attacks, the MSA organized a panel of professors and students to discuss “how Islamic is the Islamic State.”

The event was held in one of the college’s old fraternity houses and, according to Sowe, it was standing-room-only.

‘Homesick mosque’

Jalali, the USM Professor who also serves as an adviser to Bowdoin’s Muslim students, calls Maine’s places of worship “homesick mosques.”

“(They) are best described as makeshift, since prior to being purchased or leased … (they) were used as retail spaces and warehouses,” he writes in the Maine Policy Review.

The Islamic Society of Portland certainly meets Jalali’s description.

Unadorned and unidentified on the outside, inside its carpets, incense, and many languages recall more traditional mosques overseas. Many attendees are first-generation immigrants, older men dressed in traditional robes like the jellabiya or the kurta.

But the prayer room at Bowdoin reflects a different kind of homesickness. Here, young men and women pray together, and although the traditional prayers are in Arabic, for some, English is a first language.

They come hauling pounds of textbooks, and catch up about tests, meals, and friends before and after the prayers.

If Bowdoin’s prayer room is a “homesick mosque,” its worshippers are also homesick for other American homes in places like Atlanta or Austin.

It reflects a new generation of Muslims in Maine.

‘To be known’

Generations are on display at Babylon Restaurant, 1192 Forest Ave.

The 3-year-old Middle Eastern restaurant is owned by Nagham Rikam, 29, whose five brothers and sisters all pitch in to keeping things running.

On a recent Thursday, her younger sister Angam, a third-grader at Hall School, followed Nagham through the preparations for the dinner rush. She said she wants to someday take over the restaurant from her sister.

“I’m ready to get busy,” Angam proclaimed.

Babylon is growing, and is expanding its menu. The next day the restaurant would introduce an all-day buffet.

It’s not an easy thing to do in a city with one of the highest restaurant densities in the country. But Rikam believes she is up to the challenge.

Angam Rikam, 8, looks on April 3 as Ali Al Chachany and Methaq Atiyah make falafel at Babylon Restaurant, 1192 Forest Ave., Portland. (Walter Wuthmann / The Forecaster)

Her family fled Iraq when she was a teenager. She grew up in Jordan, and then Mobile, Alabama. Before coming to Maine in 2010, “the future was black for me,” Rikam said.

“(But) if you know your path, know where you’re going, and have the passion … America is an open door,” she added.

Rikam sought legal and marketing advice through Coastal Enterprises, a nonprofit community development corporation, and the Service Corps of Retired Executives, a volunteer business mentoring organization.

Her family sold their home in Iraq, and with some help from her uncle, Rikam used the start-up capital to rent the restaurant space on Forest Avenue.

She’s quick to share her business philosophy.

“Trust is a good thing, but do not trust everybody,” she said. “Customer service is key.”

Rikam’s goal, she said, is “to be known,” to have Babylon become a household name among the nearly 400 restaurants that pack the city.

As the restaurant began to fill, Rikam moved between the tables and the kitchen, speaking English and Arabic.

She plugged the new buffet to all her customers. The word – buffet – is the same in both languages.

Public office

Though less than half a percent of the state’s population, Maine’s Muslims are beginning to hold prominent public offices, representing neighborhoods and broader constituencies of old and new Mainers alike.

In 2013, Pious Ali, from Ghana, became the first African-born American, and Muslim, to be elected to public office in Maine. He is an at-large member of the Portland School Board, and a candidate for City Council.

Shortly after Ali’s election, Jama Mohamed was elected to Lewiston’s School Committee, becoming the city’s first Somali elected official.

Another Somali-American, Zam Zam Mohamud, has also served on the Lewiston School Committee, appointed by the city’s mayor.

In January, the Portland Police Department hired Officer Zahra Abu, who grew up in Somalia and Kenya. She is the first Somali, and likely first Muslim, police officer in the state.

Reza Jalali calls Abu’s hiring symbolic. More than just shattering a “glass ceiling,” he said, Abu is “shattering the ‘hijab ceiling.'”

“That’s how progress happens,” he said. “And sometimes progress happens with symbolism.”

The list of elected officials in Maine may soon include Lewiston’s Fahmo Ahmed.

On March 12, Ahmed graduated from Emerge Maine, an organization that provides a six-month training in campaigning, fundraising, and leadership for women interested in running for office as Democrats.

Ahmed was the featured graduation speaker at the event, held at SPACE gallery in Portland.

Democratic politicians packed the room, including Attorney General Janet Mills, state Rep. Sara Gideon of Freeport, who is the assistant House majority leader, and Shenna Bellows, a former U.S. Senate candidate and past director of the ACLU of Maine.

Women Ahmed describes as her mentors were there, too: her adopted godmother, Sonya Sampson of Auburn; Jill Barkley, executive director of Emerge; Molly Ladd, of Portland, her first friend in Maine, and former State Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston.

“I never thought I would see a day like this,” Ahmed told the crowd, wearing a red blazer with her black headscarf.

Born during a war in Somalia, raised in a refugee camp in Kenya, and educated in Lewiston, on that Saturday night Ahmed stood on stage addressing some of the most powerful Democratic officials in the state.

As the first Muslim graduate of Emerge Maine, “I’m paving the way for women who look like me,” she said. The crowd gave her a standing ovation.

About a week later, Ahmed was walking down Birch Street in Lewiston.

She said she felt an eerie sense of deja vu. That morning, March 22, three terrorists connected to the Islamic State killed 31 people in Brussels, Belgium.

Like clockwork, a man passing her saw her headscarf, and paused.

“Terrorist,” he said.

Ahmed thought for a second, smiled, and ignored him.

“I will never react to what people say to me,” she said. “Enough is enough.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

 

 

A man holds prayer beads during Friday prayers at the Islamic Society of Portland Feb. 12. (Roger S. Duncan / For The Forecaster)

 

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Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.