With a theme of “Inclusive Democracy and Civic Engagement,” the third annual Empower the Immigrant Woman Trailblazers Award Gala featured Maine Speaker of the House of Representatives Sara Gideon and honored four foreign-born Maine women who have overcome adversity to make systemic positive change for their peers.

“We have been, obviously both in Maine and nationally, enmeshed in this false narrative that’s based on a fear of immigrants, when in fact we are country founded by immigrants,” said Gideon, a first-generation American of Indian and Armenian heritage. “There is nothing more important for us in Maine than to welcome immigrants and help them not only become part of our community but for us to become part of their communities.”

The Trailblazers awards reception Nov. 10 at Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland followed the Empower the Immigrant Woman conference that day at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

“This morning, immigrant women told their stories, why they came here and why they want to work for success in Maine,” said Cathy Lee, co-founder of the Justice for Women lecture series. “There is no shortage of amazing women in our community to honor.”

The 2018 Trailblazers included a teacher, a nurse, an attorney and a speaker promoting multifaith dialogue. All four are multilingual, highly educated community volunteers who are especially dedicated to bridging gaps between immigrants and other Mainers.

A refugee from Sudan, Ekhlas Ahmed learned the English alphabet as a freshman at Casco Bay High School and today, with a master’s degree in education, teaches at Westbrook Middle School. “I work constantly because I need to show young girls there are role models, people who didn’t speak English but can teach it in a classroom today,” said Ahmed, co-founder of Darfur Youth of Tomorrow. “Today, I feel empowered by so much support and love.”

Despite being a lawyer, Nigerian immigrant Angela Okafor started out in Maine washing dishes. Today, besides practicing immigration law, she owns an international market and an African-inspired fashion line. “Success isn’t gender-specific,” she said. “You can achieve more than being your father’s daughter or your husband’s wife and your children’s mother.”

Somali immigrant Zam Zam Mohamud began volunteering as a translator at Central Maine Medicine within days of arriving in Lewiston in 2001. Today, in addition to working as certified nursing assistant, she helps new immigrants with everything from how to read a lease to how to apply for a driver’s license. “I get involved because I just feel like that’s the right thing to do,” Mohamud said. “My bigger community needs me so I roll up my sleeves and do the work.”

Syrian immigrant Dina Yacoubagha volunteers in the Orono area, working on issues of importance to women, from jobs and childcare to social justice and ending domestic violence. “I feel so honored and so humbled to receive this award,” she said. “I enjoy working with women and presenting about Muslim women and reversing stereotypes.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at:

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