The four voters who met with the Press Herald and Maine Public. Clockwise from top left: Sulwan Ahmed, Amran Osman, Sosanya Pok and Mohamed Awil. Sofia Aldinio/Staff Photographer

Two Somali Americans are running for seats in the Maine Legislature on Tuesday. One is unopposed, assuring a victory. And a growing number of Mainers from immigrant backgrounds are seeking, and winning, positions in municipal government. Still, some people say much more representation is needed in the state.

That’s one point that came up during a virtual roundtable discussion hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. The two newsrooms teamed up to listen to young immigrant voters shortly before the state’s 2022 election.

Maine Public/Report for America reporter Ari Snider led a virtual meeting with four young residents to talk about their concerns and hear what they want the state’s elected leaders to know about them and their communities. Press Herald photojournalist Sofia Aldinio traveled across southern Maine to photograph them. Their conversation is presented here, condensed for space and edited for clarity.


Sulwan Ahmed, 22, of Portland. Muslim life adviser at Bowdoin College. Youth advisory board member of the Community Organizing Alliance. Born in Sudan, grew up in Portland.

Mohamed Awil, 27, of Lewiston. Founder of Community Staffing Partners. Board member of Trinity Jubilee Center. Somali, grew up in Kenya and Lewiston.


Amran Osman, 24, of Lewiston. Community resource coordinator of Gateway Community Services. Founder of Generational Noor. Somali, born in Kenya, grew up in Lewiston.

Sosanya Pok, 32, of Biddeford. Financial management specialist with Attendant Services Maine. Board secretary of Khmer Maine. Born in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, grew up in Scarborough.

Listen to Ari Snider’s report for Maine Public:


Sulwan Ahmed, 22, at her home in Portland. Originally from Sudan, she moved to Maine in 2003 and recently graduated from Bowdoin College. Sofia Aldinio/Staff Photographer

Ari: The question I want to start off with here is a general one: What issues are most important to you? You can think as broadly or as locally as you want.

Amran: For me, the issues that are important are just making sure that the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] voice is heard, specifically as someone who’s been working within the field of substance use disorder. … Another issue that I find very important is housing. There’s definitely a housing crisis. A lot of people are looking for housing. It’s very hard with rent going up, but also people just not knowing where to go to get help regarding that. … I hope that those people running [for office] make sure that the BIPOC voice is heard. When people are running, they’re very quick to come to our communities and ask for help. But once they get their positions, we’re not in the forefront anymore.


Sosanya: A huge issue in this nation is wealth disparity. The rich keep getting richer; the poor keep getting poor. The rich and the corporations are not really doing their part. And then for this upcoming election, I really want to make sure – I’m crossing my fingers – that our very good abortion laws are not changed or taken away.

Sulwan: I think what’s most important for me is environmental change and how that plays into housing disparities of BIPOC communities. I feel like a lot of the conversations around environmental change in Maine are very centered around white people and their positioning to the environment. And we don’t realize that housing disparity is also environmental change, especially when you’re tackling the immigrant and refugee communities, who are being double-, if not triple-displaced, due to environmental change and then gentrification.

Mohamed: Maine is in trouble when it comes to workforce. We’re the oldest state of America. There’s less people being born. Young people are leaving the state for bigger cities. There’s a lot of research that actually shows we’re going to be in trouble. Before the pandemic, research was done on Maine’s economy that said Maine needs about 109,000 new workers by 2030. … The second thing is representation. You don’t see a lot of folks in leadership roles that come from the communities that they serve. … More young people need to be at the table, more folks from the communities that are being addressed need to be at the table when the decisions are being made.

Amran Osman, 24, works at Gateway Community Services in Portland. Born in Kenya, she moved to Maine 22 years ago and started a nonprofit called Generational Noor. Sofia Aldinio/Staff Photographer

Ari: What would you like Maine’s elected leaders to understand about you, about your life and about your concerns?

Amran: One thing I want them to understand is that we are a part of the community. We’re not important just when it comes to voting. We’re important throughout their whole term, and they need to start listening to us. When they’re making changes and choices that affect us, we should be there and at the table. But it seems that people only listen to us when they’re running.

Sosanya: One thing I have noticed, throughout my life is that, when it comes to like immigrants and BIPOC, they just work so hard – they spend a lot of their time working, and a lot of times they can’t get involved in learning. They don’t get their voices heard as much because they’re just so busy just trying to survive. I’d like to see a world where people are not working themselves to the bone as much so that they can enjoy life.


Mohamed: Housing is one of the biggest issues. During the pandemic, people that were able to afford it were coming to Maine and buying houses. Gentrification is real. People were able to live in an apartment in New York, but they’re able to buy a house in Maine, and now they pushed out a lot of folks that can’t afford to live. We also have landlords coming into Maine where they buy property for solely for-profit reasons and raising up the rent. There should be a rent cap statewide. Everybody should have a roof over their head. We have folks sleeping outside. It is unfortunate. And I hope the next administration will address not just the symptoms but the cause of it.

Sulwan: That we’re not just there for them to reach their quota and get that vote. We are active members in this community, and we are this community. We sustain this community, we make sure this community thrives. … I would love for politicians to actually learn some things – some languages, something just to communicate, because language is such a barrier in these communities. I grew up here, and I tried to teach myself Portuguese for the students I work with. Just small things that actually show us, “We care about you, and we’re trying our best to extend the conversation beyond that of English.”

Mohamed: One thing I would want our Maine politicians to know that one individual does not represent a whole community. Tokenizing folks to get to communities is not going to work. It’s 2022. People have votes … They are willing to vote out with the next person that doesn’t listen to them, that doesn’t show what people actually say they will do. That tokenism game needs to be over. We need more representation at the table, more young people, more people of color along the process of decision-making.

Mohamed Awil, 27, is a co-founder of Community Staffing Partners in Lewiston. Sofia Aldinio/ Staff Photographer

Ari: Do you feel like your priorities are reflected in politics in Maine?

Sulwan: I feel like there’s progress being made. I think because of the pandemic, there was such a transitional period for and call for the government to do well, whether it be federally, at the state level or at the local level, and I feel like strides are being taken.

Sosanya: For the most part, I don’t think that they’re reflected. We’re very lucky that this is more of a blue state than it is a red state, but I guess when it comes to Maine, mainly Greater Portland area or Southern Maine is where it feels more safe and more like progressive, and that’s where the politicians reflect what the BIPOC needs. Unfortunately most of the rest of the state is more red-leaning and it is obvious that the BIPOC voices are not as important.


Ari: How do you feel about the political climate in Maine right now and the direction the state is going in? Do you feel hopeful? Do you feel discouraged? Mixed?

Sosanya: I definitely feel more hopeful throughout the years. I’m seeing more diversity – that’s what I’m more hopeful for. But as far as gentrification in this state, especially the Greater Portland area, that’s quite a concern there. And it’s almost counterproductive.

Sulwan: I feel like the two-party system does hinder our ability to move forward as a community. And this is not just a Maine issue; this is a national issue. Maybe it is a product of Western hegemony. I don’t know where the state is headed. It’s really hard to know when everyone is just wanting to survive and they’re trying to pick a politician that is catering to their needs. But it’s lip service. At the end of the day, these politicians aren’t delivering what they say that they are going to deliver.

Mohamed: Do I think Maine is politically in great shape? Absolutely not. It’s still a work in progress. But are we headed in the right direction with the current administration? Absolutely yes.

Sosanya Pok, 32, at her home in Saco. She was born in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand and moved with her family to New England months later. She grew up in Scarborough. Sofia Aldinio/ Staff Photographer

Ari: What are your hopes for the future, both in terms of your own life and where you’d like to see the state go?

Sosanya: I hope to see more diversity. Maine is now not the whitest state. It’s Vermont, but it’s by only like 0.2%. I’d like to see more people diverse by backgrounds wanting to move to Maine and and benefiting from moving to Maine.

Sulwan: I would like to see more coordination between different BIPOC and other marginalized communities, just to hear out what is happening in these other communities and how we can support one another and be there for one another. … I also would love more conversations around Indigenous communities in Maine and what they want out of Maine and how we can support them, and then also dealing with the houseless community, finding support systems for them. Also, if I could get rid of the two-party system, I really would.

Mohamed: For me, it goes back to diversity and inclusion. It has been our strength. We have seen it during the pandemic in the workforce, where people of BIPOC and immigrants are doing some of the work that native Mainers are not willing to do. Some businesses have figured out the code to hire a bilingual, diverse workforce. …  The workforce shortage is real. It needs to be addressed. And it can be addressed by welcoming more BIPOC and new Mainers and making Maine a welcoming place to live, learn and work.

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