'We have a future together': Somali leader from Lewiston brings MLK Jr. Day message to Brunswick

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BRUNSWICK — The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said America was “essentially a dream … a dream yet unfulfilled.”

At an event honoring his legacy Monday night in Brunswick, Fatuma Hussein, executive director of the United Somali Women of Maine, touched on this theme in her own life.

The oldest of 13 children and separated from her family at 14 by violence and war, Hussein said America was always a “dream” to her.

“You hear of the ‘American Dream,'” she told the 150 people gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church. “Yet for you, as a refugee … (America) feels like an empty place.

“You don’t know where to start from,” she said.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day turnout was a record, according to Trish Riley, chairwoman of the Brunswick Democratic Town Committee, which has organized the event for the past five years to raise money for the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program.

Hussein is originally from Somalia, and came to Maine in 2001 after living in a refugee camp in Kenya and moving to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1993.

She said she “needed to find a place that I called home” and, after visiting other Somali families in Maine, she decided to pick up her family and move to Lewiston.

Hussein said Lewiston was not immediately the home she’d thought it would be. In 2002, then-Mayor Larry Raymond wrote a widely publicized open letter to the city’s Somali community asking them to discourage their friends and families from coming to Lewiston.

After that letter, Hussein said, “you wouldn’t believe this was America.”

She spoke of white men tearing at the clothes of women she knew, people being pushed into the street while waiting at red lights on Lisbon Street, and vandalism on buildings telling Somalis to “go back home.”

Hussein said she felt the need to be a bridge between the two communities. “(We) need(ed) to set an example for the entire state,” she said.

In speaking publicly and one-on-one, Hussein said she is trying to send the message that “This is a state that needs manpower, that needs smart people … it needs (all) our children.”

In Lewiston, today, school enrollment is up and Lisbon Street has gone from a “ghost town” to “thriving,” according to Hussein.

“We need to dispel … and reject the myths,” she said, “because we have a future together.”

Hussein ended her talk with a quote from King: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is … what are you doing for others?”

After Hussein’s speech, Karen Parker, executive director of the hunger prevention program, spoke about the needs of the Brunswick community.

She said many of her clients live 150 percent or more below the federal poverty guidelines. Her organization is trying to combat hunger with initiatives like the backpack program, she added.

That program is in its third year, and now sends about 260 backpacks of food home every weekend with area school children.

At the end of Monday night’s event, $2,000 in donations had been raised to support the hunger prevention program.

After her speech, Hussein said that the themes of the civil rights movement still apply today.

Half a century after King’s life, she said, “we need to re-emphasize and reaffirm that regardless of our skin color … we are in the same place.”

She alluded to a situation a couple years ago, when she was shopping at the grocery store and a woman came up to her and said, “What are you wearing? Do you think it’s Halloween?”

Hussein said she was scared, but instead of ignoring her, explained why she was wearing a headscarf and colorful clothing.

“Today,” she said, “that lady and I are good friends.”

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

Fatuma Hussein of United Somali Women of Maine: “This is a state that needs manpower, that needs smart people … it needs (all) our children.”

Jacqueline Sartoris, of the Brunswick Democratic Town Committee, addresses a crowd of 150 at the Jan. 18 Martin Luther King Jr. Day dinner at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick.

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.