Fowsia Musse is determined to extend the sense of community she feels among other Somali immigrants to all residents in the Twin Cities.
For example, on Halloween, Musse, 41, was running a clothing drive in a small park on Bartlett Street in Lewiston for the Barefoot Community Health Outreach coalition. Around her tent, the grass lot was peppered with residents, Bates students and candidates running for local office handing out pamphlets.
She was also raffling Chromebooks and giving out candy, co-hosted by Healthy Neighborhoods and her organization Maine Community Integration, of which she is the executive director.
Maine Community Integration is a Lewiston-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to help integrate “new Mainers into their communities while respecting and uplifting their diverse cultures, identities and traditions,” according to its website.
As its leader, Musse coordinates events that bring together local organizations and residents. She also runs after-school programs for young girls in the community, teaching them life skills, including feminine hygiene and mental health maintenance.
For Musse, all change starts with education. She has been utilizing what she calls the “two generation” approach, where she educates the adults and children within a household, establishing a middle ground, to inform residents about COVID-19 precautions, specifically targeting low-income and new families.
The Auburn resident is focused on promoting emotional and physical well-being. Her efforts extend from clothing drives to after-school programs and extolls the virtues of recovery and forgiveness. She said the satisfaction she feels from her efforts includes changing how immigrants such as her are perceived.
“When I do things like this, I feel like I’m representing all of the immigrants, not just me, everybody,” Musse said.
Musse has traveled a long road to get here. One of nine siblings born in Somalia, she immigrated to the United States in 1995, after fleeing to Ethiopia with her family during the Somali Civil War. Living briefly in California, then Georgia before finally settling in Maine, Musse has embraced Auburn as her home, taken aback initially by what she experienced in the United States up to that point.
“What I had seen was a harsh and horrible poverty: people who couldn’t read and couldn’t write. And all white. I was shocked,” she said. “When you come from another country you assume that everybody, especially the white people, are thriving, so I thought all this struggle we face, whether it’s economic, lack of a job or housing, I thought it was unique to the immigrant.”
The advantage of being a part of the immigrant community is the shared culture, Musse said, and she takes advantage of that in her outreach programs. In the Maine Community Integration offices, for instance, children are exposed to music therapy via drumming, which she collaborates on with others in the Somali community.
“What I learned from working with the poor American community is that the immigrants actually have the American dream, (that it) was very much alive in the immigrant head and community and it was dead in the American longtime community,” she said. “The immigrants, we come here and think that if you pull yourself by the bootstraps, you work hard, then the sky’s the limit.”