LEWISTON, Maine — After fleeing her war-torn Somalian village, Salima Nuh learned about peace education and conflict resolution in a Kenyan refugee camp. But it was when she and her husband moved to Lewiston that Nuh was able to use those skills and aid the local Somali-Bantu community as a “role model.”
Her family, including 10 children, and the various groups she helped organize to improve the lives of Somali women in Lewiston continue to reel from Nuh’s tragic death a month ago.
Nuh, 37, was killed Dec. 8 in a head-on collision on Route 196 in Topsham. At the time, she was seven months pregnant with her 11th child.
In a crowded second-floor apartment on New Year’s Eve, Nuh’s husband, Abdi Maalin, watched his children scurry about, some playing on a small computer and others transfixed by a “Curious George” cartoon on television. At times, speaking of the woman he married two decades ago, Maalin blinked away a tear, telling in sometimes broken English how the two made their way from a Somalian village to their new life in Lewiston.
Maalin, 39, married Nuh in Buaale, Somalia, when he was 19 and she was 17. Somalia has been embroiled in a civil war since 1991, and the lawlessness in their country eventually led to tragedy for the couple.
“One day, some people came to our village and destroyed our homes,” he said. “They burned our homes, we lost everything. And they raped my wife.”
The couple fled to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, hiding from the militia during the day and running at night for nearly two weeks, until they met others who sought to escape the violence. Maalin and Nuh paid for a car to drive them to the Kenyan border.
At the Dadaab camp, and then a second camp in Kakuma, Maalin and Nuh were trained in peace education, and she learned about conflict resolution. Nuh became known for her ability to listen and help others.
“Whenever someone called her, she was going to listen,” he said. “And she became the first woman to teach other women about peace.”
But the Somalian militia invaded the refugee camps as well, her husband said. At one point, while collecting firewood with three other women, Nuh was again raped.
Finally, in 2004, after much paperwork and waiting, the couple immigrated to the U.S. After three months in Bridgeport, Conn., they moved to Lewiston at the suggestion of friends.
In the Somali-Bantu community of Lewiston, Nuh became “a role model,” according to Muhidin Libah, spokesman for the Somali Bantu Community Mutual Assistance Association of Lewiston Auburn, where Nuh was a board member.
Nuh became active in a number of efforts to help Somali women. She helped organize a Women’s Empowerment Program, which meets in apartments throughout the community “to let women come together and discuss what’s good for women and small girls,” spokesman Muhidin Libah said.
She helped found a program that connects cleaning jobs with women who don’t speak English, and worked to organize a small business in which women weave traditional African baskets to sell in the community. Another project helped women get driver’s permits.
“For some of those women, that program took them out of the house for the first time,” Liban said.
Nuh also gained the confidence of community members with her peace-keeping abilities. Her husband recounted a time when she responded to a home after a child called to say his parents were fighting, and he had notified police.
“She went to the house before the police got there, and when the policeman came, he saw them sitting together and talking to each other,” Maalin said. “She told them, ‘We called you, but we have the situation solved. Thank you very much.’ If she could not go to that house, maybe the police would take action.”
Nuh’s death, Libah said, was “quite a loss for the community.” But he said the women who worked with Nuh are determined to press on with their work with women and with the support of community leaders.
Without his wife, Maalin seems overwhelmed by how his life has changed.
“You can see, I’m the mother, I’m the father, I’m the grandmother and I’m the grandfather now,” he said. “I’m everything. I have to do everything I can do to take care of my family.”
In addition to 10 children with Nuh, Maalin is the father of five children with another woman, he said. Together, they range in age from 2 to 20, with one recently graduated from Lewiston High School, and the rest — except for two toddlers — scattered at various schools.
Maalin has not returned to his job as a sanitation worker since Nuh’s death. Instead, he is caring for his youngest two children, ages 2 and 4, and walks the others to and from school.
“If I go to work, who will do that?” he asked.
He hopes to find a job he can work at night, and that an elder son or the mother of his other children can help get the smaller ones to school each day.
Since Nuh’s death, Maalin said, neighbors and other community members stop him on the street when they see him or his children, and they tell them they remember Nuh “because she was a good woman.”
“She was unforgettable,” he said.
The Somali Bantu Community Mutual Assistance Association of Lewiston Auburn is collecting donations for Nuh’s children. It has raised approximately $4,000 as of Friday, according to Libah.
To donate, send checks to the Somali Bantu Community Mutual Assistance Association of Lewiston Auburn, 145 Lisbon St., Ste. 506, Lewiston, ME 04240.