Politicians love her. So do neighbors, cops, and hot dog vendors. And her selfless spirit — and the demographic shift she represents — can reshape our state for the better.
By Jesse Ellison
Photographed by Greta Rybus
From our January 2016 issue.
ZamZam Mohamud knows every single person in Lewiston. It feels that way, anyway. She moves through the halls of the high school like she runs the place — asking receptionists about ailing family members, teasing a teacher about his bold choice of socks — then plops down, unannounced, in a chair in the vice principal’s office. She’s equally familiar with the cops at the police station, or chatting with the Somali shop owners on Lisbon Street, or hanging around the counter at Simone’s Hot Dog Stand, a Lewiston institution since 1908. When Senator Angus King — in town to tour an elementary school — happens to spot her on the sidewalk, he motions to his driver and jumps out of his car to give ZamZam a hug.
Count Lewiston’s chief of police, Michael Bussiere, among those in ZamZam’s thrall.
“I grew up here,” he says. “My father was one of 10. My stepfather was one of 11. I know a lot of people here, and she knows as many people as I do. Tell me, how did she pull that off in 10 years?”
To be fair, it’s actually been 14 years since ZamZam arrived in Lewiston, deposited on the steps of City Hall on a bleak day in November 2001, with two small children and $40 to her name. She was among the first of a wave of immigrants from Somalia — immigrants who’ve since turned Lewiston into Maine’s most culturally diverse city and ground zero of an unplanned, unexpected experiment in acceptance, public assistance, and cultural assimilation. Lewiston’s demographic shift hasn’t been easy, which makes the extent to which ZamZam has gone native all the more remarkable. Soon after arriving, she emerged as a sort of organic bridge, an ad hoc ambassador between Lewiston’s newest residents and its established ones. She’s since become the first Somali immigrant on the city’s school board and emerged as a boundary-blurring local power player, a fixer, even a town father.
Hers is a quintessential American story, an up-by-the-bootstraps transformation that would have been impossible anywhere but here.
When a Portland taxi dropped her off in Lewiston on that fall day in 2001, ZamZam had no idea where she was going. She had heard that Lewiston was small, with inexpensive housing and good schools. The year before, when she was first admitted into the U.S., she’d lived in Atlanta, followed by a stint in Portland. But both had felt too busy, too urban. On the way into town, she and her cab driver had a conversation she would subsequently have a thousand more times.
“Where are you from? What do you think of the weather? Why Maine? It’s so cold here for you!”
“Yes, but it’s beautiful!” ZamZam answered. Then the driver asked her about 9/11 — the Twin Towers had fallen just two months prior — and about whether it was safe for him to have her, a hijab-wearing Muslim, in his car.
But by the time they got to Lewiston, he’d decided to charge her just $45, rather than his normal $70 fee. He left her at City Hall, telling her, “This is where all the Somalis go.” Lewiston already hosted a sizable number of Somali immigrants, and ZamZam quickly ran into a friend who knew of an apartment vacancy.
Two days later, on the night she moved in, ZamZam’s 8-year-old son, Jama, stepped on a broken VCR, badly injuring his foot. She took him to the emergency room at Central Maine Medical Center the next morning. The nurse who helped them was struck by her command of English, which ZamZam had studied in school in Somalia, and the nurse asked whether she could help translate for another Somali patient. Initially, ZamZam resisted, doubting whether she’d be able to communicate medical terminology. But the hospital had asked for her help, so she said yes.
That was ZamZam’s third day in Lewiston, and she’s worked for the hospital virtually ever since, first as a volunteer, then as a staff translator. Today, ZamZam is a certified nursing assistant pulling down three 12-hour shifts a week.
ZamZam soon found a little house for herself and her kids. She kept working on her English and started getting involved in things — all kinds of things. She took some classes through Lewiston Adult Education, where a classmate invited her to a church supper. She went, and before long, she was volunteering in the church’s soup kitchen. When that same church later hosted a woodworking class, she invited some of her Somali friends to take it with her, to learn to make holders for their Korans. When Michael Bussiere — then just deputy police chief — held a meeting for incoming Somali immigrants to explain things like the Constitution and how the police force works, ZamZam attended. Within days, she followed up with him by phone and email, introducing herself and offering her help.
“She took a big risk by reaching out,” Bussiere remembers. “She took a lot of heat from folks within her own community. People were uncomfortable with her getting outside of what they think her role should be as a female, Muslim, Somali woman. ‘Why are you so close to all those people in the police department? Why do you know so many people at the hospital? Why are you so close to the people at City Hall?’
“And you know what?” the chief continues. “She didn’t care. She said, ‘This is my community. I’m going to embrace it, and I’m going to make friends with whoever I want to make friends with.’ And the stuff they used to be critical about, now she’s their go-to source. Now, when they need to speak to the police chief, you know what they do? They call ZamZam. And ZamZam texts me.”
Gradually, ZamZam started taking on some official roles. She was appointed to the Mayor’s Downtown Neighborhood Task Force, then the Police Department’s Civil Rights Team. In 2011, she ran for Lewiston school board as a write-in candidate. She was the runner-up, but two years later, the mayor appointed and then reappointed her to the board to fill vacant seats, making ZamZam the first Somali representative to serve the city in any official capacity.
It’s Election Day this past November, and ZamZam has let me tag along with her for the afternoon. When we meet up, ZamZam is wearing an orange blouse, a long flowered skirt, and open-toed sandals. Her hair is tied up in a bright-orange cotton hijab that leaves her neck exposed and lets her beaded earrings dangle. She greets me with a hug.
These days, the simplest way to describe what ZamZam does (when she’s not being a nurse assistant) is probably to call her a translator — not just for language, but for culture too. When a Somali neighbor needs help filling out paperwork or navigating City Hall bureaucracy, he calls ZamZam to walk him through it. When a neighborhood adolescent is acting out and resisting parental guidance, ZamZam is often called in to mediate. When the high school’s assistant principal needs help negotiating some linguistic or social hurdle, he hits ZamZam up on speed dial. She is a faithful attendee of high school sporting events, and she gives a lot of rides: to Walmart, to polling places, to the DMV.
“There are folks in this community who have a hard time reaching out to someone of another culture and asking what could be viewed as stupid questions,” says Lewiston consultant Shanna Cox, who’s served on a few boards with ZamZam. “She’s always been good about creating space for questions without judgment. Finding people willing to dig in is hard in general. Folks who dig in and take on the extra burden of speaking for a people, that’s tough.”
To hear ZamZam tell it, her actions are motivated less by political idealism than by a sort of roll-up-your-sleeves pragmatism — a can-do-ness that supplies her seemingly limitless reserves of energy. Receiving the Maine Women’s Lobby’s Community Power Award in 2014, she all but shrugged in her acceptance speech. “People ask me all the time, ‘How do you know all these people? How do you do all these things?’ It’s hard for me to explain because it is so simple: I just put myself out there. I just ask people, ‘How can I help you? Is there anything I can do?’ That’s really it.”
They are lucky they have not ever lost a home. . . . You would not tell somebody, ‘Go back home,’ when they have lost everything, when they have nothing.
ZamZam takes me to the middle school to check on the poll workers there and introduce me around. Inside, a few candidates for various seats — mayor, school board, city council — are milling around shaking voters’ hands. ZamZam wades right in, giving hugs and kissing cheeks, asking each candidate if they need water or a snack. More than one thanks her for her own service to the city, and more than one laments the absence of her name on the ballot. As ZamZam wanders off to chat with a school-board colleague, perennial mayoral candidate Charles Soule takes me aside. “She is an exceptionally intelligent woman,” he tells me. “She grasps everything around her — whether you want her to or not.”
On the way out, ZamZam is repeatedly sidetracked by acquaintances and admirers. First, it’s three Somali women, wearing long skirts and hijabs that fall almost beneath their knees, whom ZamZam greets with “salaam alaikum.” She puts her arm around one woman’s shoulders and ushers all three into the voting room, asking in Somali if they have questions or need help translating.
When she tries again to leave — she still needs to cast her own ballot at a different polling place — she’s stopped by a middle-aged white man wearing glasses. “ZamZam!” he cries from across the hall. “When you become mayor, I want you to make a Department of Love!”
Finally, ZamZam makes it outside, only to pass mayoral candidate Ben Chin, who would go on to receive more votes than any other candidate that day. Chin’s 44 percent, though not enough to win, would force a December runoff election against incumbent mayor Robert Macdonald (which Macdonald won with 53 percent of the vote on December 8). Two weeks earlier, racist signs attacking Chin popped up in Lewiston, garnering headlines nationwide and social-media attention from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — making Chin, at that moment, arguably the biggest name in Maine Democratic politics.
“Hey Benny!” ZamZam calls out, grinning. “How’s the baby?”
“I grew up in Maine. I’m a native,” explains Peter Gagnon, assistant principal of Lewiston High School’s vocational program. We have appeared, unannounced, in his office — something that seems to happen all the time with ZamZam and appears to bother exactly no one. “We have, you know, the town fathers? The wisdom of the ages? ZamZam is one of those people. She didn’t grow up here, but she’s a town father. Or a town mother.
“ZamZam isn’t looked at as a member of ‘the Somali community,’” Gagnon goes on. “She’s a member of our community. That’s the big picture.”
Gagnon means this as a compliment, to be sure. But his comment also suggests a less celebratory reality about Lewiston’s seismic demographic shifts, and the fact that ZamZam’s experience has not been the norm.
When Somalis began arriving in Lewiston in 2001, they were settling in a community that was notoriously down on its luck. The city had never quite recovered from the closure of its textile mills in the mid-20th century — unemployment was up, the population was down, and bars were proliferating. A sudden influx of East African Muslims in a struggling blue-collar town in the country’s whitest, most homogenous state took just about everyone by surprise. The most obvious, outspoken objection to the immigrants’ arrival was the fact that most of them (including ZamZam, for about nine months upon arrival) received General Assistance — a mix of state and local funds provided to asylum seekers as a sort of stopgap, given that they’re prevented from working while their residency applications are reviewed, a process that can take months. Maine was struggling economically during the early 2000s, and Lewiston’s situation was particularly dire — at least initially, the newcomers seemed to present a clear additional economic burden.
In 2002, then-mayor Laurier Raymond wrote a public letter to the Somali community, asking them to stop coming. “Please pass the word,” the letter read. “We have been overwhelmed and have responded valiantly. Now we need breathing room. Our city is maxed-out financially, physically, and emotionally.” He wasn’t the only — or the last — elected official to take such a stance. In 2012, mayor Robert Macdonald told the BBC that the immigrants to his city should be prepared to “leave their culture at the door.” Both he and Governor Paul LePage have proposed or strongly endorsed efforts to cut off public assistance to immigrants seeking asylum.
But Macdonald was also the mayor who appointed ZamZam to the school board. And while Portland last year experienced what a state assistant attorney general characterized as an “explosion of anti-Islamic sentiment,” Lewiston has, in the same period, seen virtually no crimes motivated by anti-immigrant or religious bias, according to the police department. Today, Lewiston’s Somali community is unquestionably entrenched. City administrators estimate there are as many as 6,000 Somalis in Lewiston, a city of 36,000. Roughly a quarter of students enrolled in Lewiston’s public schools are classified as English Language Learners (official school department documents are available in both English and Somali). The town has two mosques and a long stretch of Lisbon Street hosting a dozen or so Somali shops and restaurants (storefronts that were largely empty just five-ish years ago). This summer, police chief Bussiere said he hoped to start recruiting officers from within the city’s Somali population (with ZamZam acting as an informal advisor), an effort to ensure his department is reflective of his community.
In a sense, Lewiston’s Somalis have been able to establish themselves in ways that might have been impossible in another, bigger city. (“It would be harder,” ZamZam agrees. “If there are 50 other languages to interpret, what do you do?”) During her second term on the school board, which comes to an end in January, ZamZam was no longer even the board’s only Somali. Last year, in a quintessentially small-town storyline, much of the community rallied around the Lewiston High School boys’ soccer team, the roster of which includes eight players who spent parts of their childhoods in Kenyan refugee camps. The team won the state championship and ranks among the top 25 teams in the country.
Crime was beginning to decline in Lewiston as its Somalis were first arriving. The state’s second largest city now ranks 26th for crime, well below Bangor, Ogunquit, and Ellsworth, to name a few. Juvenile crime rates — important predictors of future crime statistics — are also on the decline, despite a sizable increase in the number of juveniles. Few will go so far as to credit the city’s new arrivals for its falling crime rate, but many police officials and city administrators have expressed, if delicately, that it’s at least impressive the swelling immigrant population hasn’t caused crime to go up.
“As our demographics change, people sometimes see things, and they may have an opinion based on their fears that a community or a neighborhood is [heading] in a certain direction, when in reality it’s totally different,” says Bussiere. “People love to live in the past and love to live in this nostalgia that things were somehow better. Things were not better in Lewiston 25 or 30 years ago. It wasn’t anywhere near as good as it is now.”
And Maine, like few other states, needs a demographic change. A Bloomberg News editorial recently called Maine “a state whose demographics are a slow-motion economic disaster.” To maintain the size of its workforce, according to former state economist Charles Colgan and others, Maine not only has to keep its younger generation here, but also attract at least 3,000 new residents a year over the next two decades. Statewide, Maine’s number of school-aged youth is declining — which doesn’t bode well for the long-term workforce. In Lewiston, by contrast, school population rates are up by 10 percent since 2002. Lewiston’s overall population, meanwhile, has rebounded slightly from a 20-year low in 2009 — which many see as a reason for hope.
“Without the presence of a foreign-born population, it’s reasonably certain we would have had a population decline,” says deputy city administrator Phil Nadeau, a native Lewistonian and 17-year city employee. “And without the population, anything you’re doing to sustain a community becomes infinitely more difficult. In a state where the median age is the oldest in the country . . . your future economy is going to be based on your ability to put people in jobs. [Population gains from immigrants] could never be your only solution, but it can’t be excluded from the equation. It just can’t.”
Advocates for the “new Mainer” community point to these demographic boosts, along with unemployment rates among immigrants only slightly higher than the state average and the fact that the city spends less than 1 percent of its budget on general assistance.
“We get the, ‘Why do you let them come here?’ ” Bussiere says. “Like we’re supposed to not let them come into this community? No. If they want to come here and they want to contribute to this community, have at it.”
People have told her to go back to Africa, ZamZam says. They have called her racist names. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens.
“I don’t get offended because, number one, they don’t know me. They don’t know who I am,” she says. “And number two, they are lucky they have a home, that they have not ever lost a home. They don’t know what it takes or what it means, because you would not tell somebody, ‘Go back home,’ when they have lost everything, when they have nothing. So I just look, and I just laugh.”
ZamZam doesn’t like to talk much about her childhood or the civil war that drove her from her homeland. Her father died when she was 2 years old. At 14, she had an arranged marriage to an older man. By the time she was 18, she had two children and was living in a refugee camp in Kenya, having seen and lived through the atrocities of a war that devastated her country, physically separated her from her husband, and claimed the lives of many of her close family. She has seen horrible things. But all she’ll really say about that now is that she thinks maybe she cries too often, and that it’s perhaps because of a sadness inside of her that she has yet to address. She says she can’t watch the news when they run stories about Syrian refugees, particularly when they talk about children. It gives her flashbacks.
People love to live in the past and love to live in this nostalgia that things were somehow better. Things were not better in Lewiston 25 or 30 years ago. It wasn’t anywhere near as good as it is now.
— Police Chief Michael Bussiere
So ZamZam charges forward. She refuses to dwell. “I go through things and I move on, that’s the thing,” she says, arriving back home after having finally voted herself. “I look for solutions. It will bug me when I don’t know what to do, and the minute I figure it out, I’m gone. I’ve done it. I’ve forgotten about it.”
ZamZam’s husband left Somalia years before her, in the late 1990s, coming to Atlanta as part of a federal resettlement program for displaced Somalis. But after she and her children joined him in 2000, she left him within a month. They had different ideas about child rearing, discipline, the roles of husband and wife. Today, she wears a blinged-out ring on her wedding finger, a gift from a friend when she got her American citizenship in 2005. “I’m married to America,” she likes to say.
She leads me into the small, three-bedroom house in the Lewiston neighborhood of Tall Pines, where she’s lived for 14 years and raised two kids. They’re both grown now: Hanan is 23 and lives in Pennsylvania, where she’s an intern at Johnson & Johnson and applying to grad school for pharmacology. As a teenager, she’d been Lewiston High School’s first Somali class president. Jama is 22, lives at home with ZamZam, and attends the University of Southern Maine at Gorham. The house is sparsely decorated. There’s little on the walls but the kids’ graduation photos and a tapestry above her bed that depicts Mecca in gold thread on a black background — ZamZam is named after the holy water that comes from a spring at the site.
Hanan is listed in her phone as “My Rock,” and when she calls, a photo pops up of a smiling girl with wavy, shoulder-length, uncovered hair. Hanan goes back and forth, ZamZam says, sometimes covering up, sometimes not. It was a subject she decided early on not to press. “I thought, if we don’t have some agreement on her dressing, we’re going to be always battling. I try not to be judgmental, try not to be like, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ Let’s come in the middle and see, what can we do to make this easier for you and for me?”
Which is, really, what she’s doing all the time: finding the middle space, bringing differing sides to the table. “People who know me tell me that I’ve always been like this — I’ve been feeding people forever, I’ve been bringing people together, talking,” she says. “It’s just something that is in me, but maybe I didn’t know how to pursue it back there. I think people believe in me more here, and I’m getting so much support that it’s just clicking.” Her leadership role in Lewiston, she also notes, is possible here in a way that it isn’t in much of the rest of the world, where corruption or gender or race or class can be impenetrable barriers. Not everywhere, ZamZam is aware, would someone of her background have the cell phone numbers of the mayor, the chief of police, and the school superintendent.
At home, the first thing ZamZam does is put a pair of slippers in the microwave. She makes a cup of ginger and cardamom tea, turns out the downstairs lights, and goes upstairs to her bedroom for a moment of rest. She’s yawning, but within an hour she will be up again, changed into jeans and a long, chunky sweater with a pale-blue head wrap, heading out to pick up a friend, a local imam, to go to the county jail for an interdenominational group she started there. After that, around 9:30, she’ll head to Lewiston’s She Doesn’t Like Guthrie’s café for Ben Chin’s election night party. The next morning, she’ll be at the hospital by 6 a.m.
Later that week, on Friday afternoon, ZamZam and Lewiston police officer Joseph Philippon are standing in a parking lot outside the Masjidu-Salaam, a mosque on Bartlett Street. It’s the first Friday of the month, which means the mosque is supposed to host a monthly Q&A that ZamZam helped coordinate between the police and the new Mainer community. But nobody else is there. Daylight saving time just ended, and since prayers are timed with the sun and not the clock, the worshippers left by the time Philippon arrived. ZamZam feels badly that nobody told him.
“Oh well, no worries,” Philippon shrugs. “It’s a learning experience, right? We’ll try again next month.”
In the air is a palpable sense of fatigue. Since the heated mayoral race ended in a runoff, ZamZam and others would soon be heading out once more to drum up turnout. ZamZam’s one fellow Somali on the school board, Jama Mohamed (no relation to ZamZam or her son), lost his re-election. With ZamZam opting not to run after her term ends in January, the board will once again lack representation from the Somali community. For ZamZam and others, Jama’s loss came as a reminder that, no matter what progress has been made, winning an election in Lewiston with a last name that sounds like “Muhammad” is still no easy feat.
It’s clear, however, why people in her circle keep suggesting that ZamZam run for some larger office. She has all the qualities of a natural politician: charisma, an encyclopedic knowledge of the people in her community and what matters to them, certainly an innate call to service. She’s charming, she’s photogenic, and she’s only 41 years old.
But for everything that ZamZam loves about this country, there is an ugliness to its politics that isn’t in keeping with her vision of the world. She doesn’t want to say publicly who she voted for or whether she even has a party affiliation. There’s a divisiveness to party politics that’s simply antithetical to her approach. This is a practicing Muslim who walked into Simone’s, a restaurant famous for its hot dogs, introduced herself to the owner, and (to hear him tell it) “from then on owned the place.” She has been, one suspects, the first Somali friend for a large swath of Lewiston. Hers is the kind of slow, brick-by-brick bridge-building that relies on human connection, on meeting in the middle, on understanding where other people are coming from. It’s the sort of work that’s best accomplished not as a mayor or a legislator or even a “Somali representative,” but simply as ZamZam.
“I keep telling people, it’s just me,” she says. “It’s not a ‘Somali woman,’ it’s not a culture, it’s not a religion. What I’m doing, it’s me.”