PORTLAND, Maine — Hundreds of people gathered on the steps of City Hall Friday afternoon to denounce Donald Trump’s characterization of Maine’s large Somali population as dangerous and a burden on the country’s economy.
“Somalis have been a part of Maine since the early 90s. We are a part of this community, and we are citizens of this country,” said Deqa Dhalac, a member of the executive committee of the Somali Community Center of Maine. “We have professionals, laborers, students, business owners, veterans, and members of law enforcement. We care about our communities, and we are here to stay.”
The crowd of roughly 200 people included Portland’s mayor, Ethan Strimling, and city council members. Representatives of Maine’s Somali and Muslim community came from around the state, but much of the crowd was white.
They chanted “More love, no hate,” and held signs reading, “I love my neighbors” and “No place for racism” superimposed over an image of Maine. Many waved pocket Constitutions — by now a familiar rebuke to Trump, after Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq, accused him in a Democratic convention speech of having never read the document.
The rally took place less than 24 hours after Trump hosted a rally just steps away, in the city’s Merrill Auditorium, where he said the state’s Somali refugees come from some of the world’s “most dangerous places” and have made Maine a “major destination.” He also blamed the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing on lax immigration policies.
Abdifatah Ahmed, president of the New Mainers Alliance for immigrants, did not dispute that Somalis are fleeing some of the most dangerous places on Earth.
“People are coming for safety and opportunity — the same reason that a lot of Europeans came to this land,” he said.
“Coming from a troubled place does not mean that we are criminals,” he said, to loud cheers. “So we will stay here, and, you know, in November we will vote.”
Strimling also addressed the crowd, a Constitution tucked in his shirt pocket. He, like Khan, speculated that Trump has never read the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion.
He addressed the Somali community in Arabic, wishing them “peace be upon you” — a standard greeting in the Muslim world — and assured them they are welcome in his city.
“We need you here,” he said.
Attendees and organizers of the rally said they were delighted by the turnout and said it demonstrates the values of Portland.
Still, Maza Mohamed, 42, who is Ethiopian and Muslim, said she is worried Trump’s comments will provoke backlash among the community, even in a city as liberal as Portland.
“Some people like him. They’re calling us terrorists, but I’m not,” she said. “I’m like you. I just cover my hair. That’s the only difference.”
Ahmed, who lives in Lewiston, said he has seen some Facebook comments after Trump’s speech from people who agree with the Republican candidate. Portland is a liberal enclave, he said, but his hometown has more conservatives.
Even in Portland, said Ann Murray, 54, a teacher at the local high school, her Somali students have experienced harassment. She, too, worries such treatment may increase after Trump’s rhetoric.
“I think he gives license to people who have those thoughts to feel it’s okay to act on those beliefs,” she said.
Marge Sampson, 67, a retired teacher, said she is optimistic Maine will vote for Hillary Clinton come November. “But I’m not taking any chances,” she said, explaining her presence at the rally.
Mahmued Hassan, president of the Somali Community Center, said he’s not concerned about fallout from Trump’s comments.
“This is a great community, very educated,” he said. “Yes, there are instances of verbal discrimination here and there, but other that, I’ve never felt threatened in Maine.”