This is the second in my series for the Maine Beacon called “Maine Rising,” which profiles young leaders across Maine.
This week on Maine Rising, we speak with Fowsia Musse. She is a New Mainer, mother of three, community health outreach worker, executive director of Maine Community Integration, and a cancer patient navigator from Somalia currently living in Auburn. Her story is full of power and promise.
What is your story?
When I was six years old, my town in Northern Somalia was attacked. My mother and siblings fled. My dad and I stayed. I was told my mom and siblings were hit by a bazooka. They also thought my dad and I died. We each assumed each other was dead.
My dad gave me a piece of paper with his lineage to find his relatives. I went to the bushes to find them. I was malnourished and a bit unrecognizable with much shorter hair. I saw a women looking like my mother walking towards the buses holding a little girl’s hand. At first, I was bit hesitant. Then I walked a few steps closer to her and called her “Mom.” She stopped a little, almost as if she was also hesitant, but then she continued walking towards the buses. That is when I walked a little faster towards her and called her using a loud voice this time with her name (Shamis). It was her.
We moved to the third largest city in Ethiopia, JigJiga. A long-distance uncle (barely related) came and said: “I am taking my family to America.” He could–as a favor–take one child to America with him. As I was the oldest child in my family, I was chosen to come to America to have a better future.
I first lived in San Diego. Then I lived in Atlanta from December 1995 to July 7, 2003. And then I moved to Maine. I had three kids in Maine: a daughter in March 2004, a son in March 2008, and a daughter in June 2014. I have three Mainers!
What did you do when you first moved to Maine?
The struggle forced us to integrate faster. We were out of our comfort zones. We could face our demons, went through it like a storm. We had to learn English, which is very hard and not easy to master. I appreciate the route my life took me because I learned a lot from it. It made me stronger.
In Maine, even though it’s good that people have interpretation services in place, at the same time, if interpretations are used as a life-long system, it hinders New Mainers’ ability to integrate fully. Interpretation should be a “cane system,” as I call it. Interpreters should be a stepping stone. We also need practical English classes where one learns day-to-day English. About 90 percent of refugees cannot afford to sit in long academically-designed English classes. We have so many burdens on our shoulders financially. Loved ones that we left behind are waiting and depending on us to take care of them financially. Our newly-found country also needs us to work, educate, and fully integrate.
What is the difference between Lewiston/Auburn when you first came here in and now?
When I first came, there were mostly secondary immigrants: people who came from other places in U.S. who could speak some English and had their kids in the states. They migrated from somewhere else. From 2006 on, people came here straight from refugee camps, especially Ethnic Somali Bantus who were agricultural farmers. They were already facing classism and social isolation while in Somalia. They come here and are faced with the same and more hurdles. It’s an understatement to say “culture shock.” I don’t think the services currently in place to help New Mainers when they come here are any better. Refugees are still left to fend for themselves a few days upon arrival.
What is your vision for Lewiston/Auburn?
We are stronger because of our circumstances, not weaker. We are not our circumstances. We use it to shape who we become. We use that experience to strengthen to our lives. It’s not a weakness. It makes us resilient.
I don’t care if you’re a veteran who’s struggling to maintain his or her basic needs in life or an individual who is becoming homeless because of their circumstances or a refugee/immigrant/asylum seeker who had crossed oceans—no one becomes a beggar because they find it glamorous. I want to tell my long-time Mainers: there is nothing more sad, depressing, or degrading than losing your pride and becoming a beggar. No one risks everything to be a beggar. Everyone comes here to pursue happiness. I am three times a minority woman—Muslim, Black, and refugee. I want to move away from all that. Do you want to do something better? Do you want to move forward? What benefits Mohamed benefits John.
Here in the U.S., I do not think the education system is adequately equipped or is ready yet to properly teach refugee children with invisible trauma scars. Children with refugee status are indeed and undisputedly resilient. America has no clue. The world has no clue how resilient refugee children are. Refugee children’s adaptability and survivability in new, unwelcoming, and unfriendly environments is beyond amazing.
How can people who read this support your work?
When it comes to New Mainers, white Mainers find one black immigrant or refugee person, and they will only contact, invite, and listen to that one person as if the rest of the entire New Mainer community is illiterate, uneducated, or–even worst–unapproachable. We have different colors. White is a color too. Why am I being called a person of color? I don’t like that. How could one person represent us when we all have our different dialects, different ways of worshipping God? I’m not the end-all-be-all. I’m just me, Fowsia.