Somali’s work opens ‘gateways’ in Portland, Lewiston

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PORTLAND — Abdullahi Ali considers himself fortunate.

“I was brought up in a refugee camp. I have been supported by humanitarian institutions. I always wanted to find a way to give back to communities,” Ali said Feb. 2 at the Forest Avenue office of Gateway Community Services.

A Somali immigrant who spent much of his youth in a Kenyan refugee camp, Ali arrived in Lewiston in 2009, and moved to Portland a year later. He became a caseworker with Catholic Charities of Maine and Community Counseling Services, working with refugees who were torture victims.

While attending the University of Southern Maine for undergraduate studies and the University of Southern New Hampshire for graduate studies in public policy, Ali was thinking bigger.

“He has the ability to connect to a range of people and has a sense of direction,” Lacey Gale, a counselor at Gateway Community Services, which Ali founded in 2014, said Monday. “It is really inspiring; he has very high standards for the work he has done.”

She describe Ali’s dedication to other immigrants and refugees as “visionary.”

Gateway Community Services has offices in Portland and Park Street in Lewiston, offering services to immigrants and refugees. For-profit mental health services are contracted through the state Department of Health and Human Services MaineCare program.

Meanwhile, Gale is establishing the nonprofit Gateway Community Services Maine, which looks to serve refugees and asylum seekers who are not eligible for MaineCare.

Gateway Community Services has four clinicians and 22 case workers to help about 215 clients who need services for six months or more. Weekly counseling sessions take an hour, case management requires four hours per month, Ali said.

Drawing from the network of connections he made as a case worker to staff Gateway Community Services, Ali said he had a leg up when he arrived in America.

“One big advantage I had was, I spoke English,” he said. “I think when I came here, I was fortunate enough to have a friend here. I had about three different families I knew here. It was a big help for me.”

Now he and his staff help those hampered by language barriers, post traumatic stress from what they or family members suffered in their native countries, and the pressures of assimilation.

“It may affect their functionality, their day-to-day life,” Ali said. Many are not used to asking for help, and worry about the stigma associated with mental health services.

Gale said the problems can be even harder for asylum seekers, who may not be eligible to receive federal assistance such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Asylum seekers must wait at least 180 days to be cleared to work. They are now eligible for General Assistance benefits, vouchers used for housing, food, medicine and basic necessities after that state law was changed in 2015.

Noof Alsukiny is an Arabic-language translator at Gateway Community Services. Born in Iraq, she arrived in America almost three years ago by way of Syria and Turkey.

“I’m here in Maine; it is very safe for me,” she said Feb. 2.

Alsukiny, 36, is a single mother who said her empathy and devotion to clients goes beyond counseling sessions. Many do not speak English, some are not literate in Arabic, either.

Alsukiny may teach them to use a seat belt, or get to appointments and help them navigate the basics of life here.

“It is beautiful when you help somebody, I feel really good, they give me positive energy,” she said.

Somalia was one of the seven largely Muslim nations named in President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order limiting immigration for 120 days in order to review U.S. Department of Homeland Security vetting processes.

The order was temporarily stayed by Judge James Robart of the U.S. District Court of Western Washington. A Justice Department appeal of Robart’s stay was being argued Tuesday before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I don’t think things like this will do anything to end violence, it will only victimize vulnerable people,” Ali said. “If I felt this would support fighting terrorism, I would be the first one to support it.”

Alsukiny said her clients and daughter worry, too.

“I told her, we are legal in this country. I changed from Iraq to Syria to Turkey just to be safe,” she said. “I am a Muslim, but I have an open mind. I am not doing anything wrong.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Abdullahi Ali founded Gateway Community Services to give back to those who helped him get to America, find work and get an education.

Interpreter Noof Alsukiny, a native of Iraq, helps clients during counseling at Gateway Community Services and in their own communities.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.