PORTLAND — When Hamza Haadoow fled the civil war in Somalia in 1990, his life didn’t get much better. He moved into a refugee camp in Kenya. There was little food and clean water, he said. Refugees slept on the ground. Security was limited.
“I didn’t think I’d last six months or a year,” Haadoow said. “But I survived 10 years there on and off.”
Twenty-one years later, Haadoow, now 37, is a candidate to be Portland’s first popularly elected mayor since 1923.
In reality, he is a long shot. He has never held public office or any other highly visible position, so he has little name recognition compared with many of his 14 opponents.
He speaks imperfect English and hasn’t raised tens of thousands of dollars, as some of the other candidates have. He has received no high-profile endorsements.
But that doesn’t make his story less compelling, or his candidacy less interesting. Since escaping the refugee camp and moving to Portland in 2000, Haadoow has owned multiple businesses.
He founded B&S Transportation, a car service and cargo transport company. He sold B&S in December 2006, when he and his family moved to Arizona for a brief period, he said.
In May 2008, Haadoow returned to Maine. He started a wholesale meat market in Portland, which he later sold. He also opened a grocery store in Worcester, Mass., which he still partially owns.
Haadoow has a tremendous work ethic, say his family and friends. He works two jobs, raises nine children and is pursuing a master’s degree in organizational leadership. He’ll likely graduate in May. He got a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 2008.
During the day, Haadoow works 40 hours per week as the assistant sustainability and recycling manager for Goodwill Industries of Northern New England. He also works as a consultant and accountant for numerous ethnic businesses in the city.
Haadoow said he typically goes to bed at midnight and wakes at 4 a.m. When he has lots of accounting and consulting work, he’ll sometimes go 48 hours without sleeping.
“Hamza is a tremendously responsible and dependable person. He’s never let me down, not once,” said his supervisor, Michael Howe. “I will miss him when he wins. Actually, I’ll win either way. Whether he’s mayor or whether he’s working for me, I can’t lose.”
During the mayor’s race, Haadoow has sometimes struggled at debates, partly because English is his second language. He speaks with a thick accent.
Off the record, residents who have attended debates and consultants who are involved in the race said that will hurt him. Supporters, however, said that wouldn’t inhibit him as mayor.
“He’s overcome unimaginable circumstances and accomplished a lot in such a short period of time,” said Natalie Richards, who lives in the East Deering neighborhood. “I think being mayor would be easy for him compared to everything else he’s gone through.”
Like many of the candidates, Haadoow is running on a jobs platform. He would like to market Portland companies internationally and help them make connections overseas.
“Too often, we import things from other countries. We need to send more out of Portland,” he said.
Haadoow has lived in Europe, Africa and the Middle East and said he could help Portland businesses make connections abroad through his personal contacts and knowledge of the cultures.
“There are business centers like Dubai, which would love a lot of the products we make in Portland,” Haadoow said. “We just have to advocate for local businesses and know how to make those connections, so they know about those products.”
Haadoow said he would like to implement a role model program in the schools. He would cultivate a group of volunteers — doctors, lawyers, journalists, engineers and other professionals — to reach out to students with similar interests. They could help inspire students and point them toward the right path, Haadoow said, and it wouldn’t cost the taxpayers money.
He also wants to focus on getting Portland residents off welfare. He said he would like to start a volunteer or internship program with businesses, in which people on welfare would work for free but get trained and learn valuable job skills.
The work could lead to employment and ease the tax burden on residents who pay for social services, he said.
Charles Bragdon, another mayoral candidate, has proposed a similar program.
“Many people on welfare want to work,” Haadoow said. “It helps with morale. If you just sit and wait for a few hundred dollars every month, you don’t do well. If you’re working, you feel better, you want to contribute more.”
Haadoow said that spreading his ideas is as important as winning the race. Win or lose, he will continue trying to improve Portland, he said.
“I’ve survived war, the refugee camp, gone to school, raised and supported my children, worked multiple jobs at long hours,” he said. “If I can do that, I can also have the ability to lift up more people, and I will keep trying to do that.”
Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]