LEWISTON, Maine — Zam Zam Mohamud, described as popular and well-regarded in the community by a Bates College professor, is the city’s first Somali to serve on the Lewiston School Committee.
Her appointment is a turning point for Lewiston, “when our city representatives begin to reflect our shifting demographics,” said Elizabeth Eames, an associate professor of anthropology at Bates. Of Lewiston’s student-age population of 5,139, 23 percent are English Language Learners, the majority from Somali families.
“Zam Zam bridges all sides of the community with her charismatic personality, high-voltage energy supply, linguistic facility and multiple cultural competencies,” Eames said.
Mohamud, 38, was nominated by Mayor Robert Macdonald and approved by the City Council. She fills a spot on the committee vacated by former school Superintendent Robert Connors, who resigned for health reasons. Mohamud said she intends to serve Connors’ term until it expires in January and might seek another term after that.
A CNA at Central Maine Medical Center, Mohamud lives in Tall Pines. She isn’t rich or powerful, Eames said. Her family “lost everything in the war, they came here having to start all over again.”
Yet she’s known by many in the community. She was an engaged parent active in her children’s schools: Longley and Montello elementary schools, Lewiston Middle School and Lewiston High School. She’s often been seen volunteering, wearing a head scarf and a warm smile.
Mohamud moved to Lewiston from Atlanta, Ga., in 2001, among the first Somali refugees to arrive. She fled Somalia because of the war and lived in Kenya for 10 years, she said.
After moving to Lewiston, she and her husband divorced, leaving her to raise her son, Jama, and daughter, Hanan. Both have graduated from Lewiston High School. In 2009, her daughter served as co-class president and was the first Somali student to serve on the School Committee. Hanan is now a student at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York; Jama attends Husson University in Bangor.
When she first moved to Maine, adapting to a new culture was difficult, Mohamud said, calling the English language tough to learn. She still learns new words every day. Culture shock.
“You’ve been raised in such a way,” she said. Her children were in school all day with American students learning new ways. When her children came home from school, “you want to keep the culture, the religion. It is a challenge.”
Children will push a parent’s limits, she said. “They will try. You need to be on top of everything. It’s reinforcing, you being there as a parent with your rules and regulations to be followed, and asking God to help.”
She said she raised her children with the expectation they’d work hard and do well in school. “There’s no way out,” she said. Education was a constant topic. “I talked to the teachers, to my kids, make sure they did their homework,” Mohamud said. She hired extra tutors for her children at home. She talked about the difference college would make in their lives and took them on college visits during their sophomore years.
She went to school herself, graduating from the Central Maine Medical Center College of Nursing and Health Professions. In 2006, she became a U.S. citizen.
Mohamud has been a frequent volunteer, serving on the Lewiston Police Department’s Civil Rights Team, the library board of trustees, Mayor Larry Gilbert’s Downtown Neighborhood Task Force, the school department’s search for a new superintendent, the school-based health centers and Welcoming Maine, among other groups.
In 2011 there wasn’t enough candidates running for the school board. She was among three who stepped up and became write-in candidates for an at-large school committee seat. Mohamud came in second to Connors, 552-418.
When the mayor recently asked her to fill Connors’ spot, she agreed. “My kids went to school here,” Mohamud said. “They got the best education. This is my way to give back to this community and to support the community.”
Lewiston High School Principal W. Gus LeBlanc said he’s known Mohamud for 12 years. Her children went to Montello when he was principal there, and later attended the high school when he was principal. LeBlanc described her as a parent committed to her children and their education, a tireless volunteer on committees to help education.
“Over the years she has been an active presence at the schools, following up on the progress of her children, encouraging her children to do their very best,” LeBlanc said. “Zam Zam can be held up as a good example of a person who has become an active and productive member of the community through her dedication to others and her strong work ethic.”
Mohamud said she’s looking forward to more minorities stepping up. “We will see more city officials from the Somali community,” she said. “This is the beginning.”