LEWISTON — Fatuma Hussein, 38, was not just part of the first wave of Somali immigrants who came to Lewiston in 2001. She helped make that wave.

On Tuesday, the organization she founded in 2002, The Immigrant Resource Center of Maine – formerly known as United Somali Women of Maine – will celebrate its anniversary at the Hilton Garden Inn Auburn Riverwatch.

The United Somali Women of Maine was the first successful refugee organization in Lewiston, former Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau said. He worked with the arriving immigrants.

“Her work to create one of the most successful immigrant organizations in the state has earned her recognition at the state and national level,” Nadeau said.

Fatuma Hussein, center, stands with co-workers at the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine on Lisbon Street in Lewiston. From left: Amina Farah, Bright Musuamba, Hussein, Zahra Houssein and Choukri Mohamed. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Hussein is well-known and well-regarded across Maine, the subject of several newspaper and magazine articles.

For what she has done, she was given an honorary degree from Bowdoin College in 2017.

Born in Somalia, she fled the violence from the civil war when she was a youth. She lived in refugee camps in Kenya and immigrated to Atlanta, where in high school she met Muktan Hersi, the man who would become her husband.

They now have eight children, several of whom are in college.

Hussein arrived in Portland on a snowy February day in 2001 looking for a better place to live. She was welcomed by Somali refugees crammed into an overcrowded shelter or tiny apartments.

She asked them why they stayed in Portland. They told her they were advised to move to Lewiston, “but they said: ‘We’re very afraid. None of us live there,’” Hussein said.

Pregnant with her third child, Hussein asked for the contact information and went to Lewiston, greeted by a fresh blanket of snow.

“It was most beautiful” and peaceful, she said. “It was quiet. No tall, tall buildings, no traffic.”

She met with three Somali families living at Hillview apartments on Rideout Avenue, who told her Lewiston was a good place to live.

Hussein went back to Portland, then Atlanta, and told Somali refugees they needed to move to Lewiston.

“This is a safe place,” she recalled telling them. “Lewiston would be the best thing that ever happened to you.”

In March 2001, 50 Somali families moved to Lewiston, followed by many more.

“Nobody knew that we were coming,” she said. “Nobody was prepared.”

City officials hired their first Somali case manager to help. The manager asked Hussein if she would speak to the State Refugee Advisory Council. She said she had never given a public presentation.

“You’re a woman,” the manager told her. “They will listen to you.”

She did, and it was the beginning of her advocacy work.

A few months later, she was meeting with a representative of a Coastal Enterprise program that helped refugees. Hussein was asked what would be her dream to help Lewiston’s new residents.

Her answer: A women’s center to provide English speaking skills, help with getting jobs and help with accessing programs.

She was told, “Go write a proposal.”

She did.

Before long, she was approved for a $40,000 grant from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, with Community Concepts serving as the fiscal agent.

But with no community to help, she scheduled a meeting of Somali women at the Multi-Purpose Center in Lewiston in May 2002.

On a Saturday, “100 women showed up. We came up with a name, a vision, what services we would do,” she said.

The United Somali Women of Maine provided all kinds of help.

“We were doing anything. But our first order of business was working with the school systems in Lewiston and Auburn, making sure schools had what they needed” to help students, Hussein said.

The organization was so named because most of the immigrants it helped were women and children whose male family members died in the violence in Somalia.

The name was changed later to better reflect help for all immigrants.

The programs meant a lot of work and volunteerism from the Somali immigrants.

“If we were going to succeed it had to be a two-way street,” Hussein said. “It wasn’t just Lewiston-Auburn and Maine giving to us. We were going to do our part.”

One big part was community education, understanding how things worked. For instance, initially there was a high rate of child protective services cases with immigrants.

“We’d bring providers to the community so they could talk about what they do,” Hussein said. “That was empowering.”

Reflecting on what the Immigrant Resource Center has done since its formation, Hussein said it has given voices to many people, whether through helping women break out of domestic violence or living in housing without lead poisoning.

“We have brought an awareness, courage, resiliency and, more than anything, hope to the very systems and communities we’ve interacted with,” Hussein said.

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