When Sahro Hassan stepped into the halls of Lewiston Regional Technical Center as a freshman in 2010, she was already designing her future along with trendy clothes for young Muslim women.
“The fashion industry in the US doesn’t do justice to modest women, especially when it comes to young females like me, and that frustrated me,” explains Hassan. “I decided to create fashions appropriate to my culture and to my beliefs,” she adds, “but also unique and sophisticated so that both Muslim and non-Muslim women would want to wear it.”
“I love being able to express so much with just a piece of garment,” says Hassan, who at age 19 already has three fashion shows and both local and state awards to her name. One of her goals, she emphasizes, is to use her fashions to create cross-cultural conversation. “The more people who come to this country as immigrants,” she explains, “the more we need to share and embrace each other’s cultures. We need to understand each other’s stories. I want to do that through fashion.”
Hassan’s own story began before she was born, when her family emigrated in the early 1990’s from Somalia.
“I remember my mother telling me that she and my father walked for days and days before they ended up in Kenya,” she recalls. Desperate to leave famine and civil war behind, Sahro’s parents spent several years at a refugee camp named Dadaab, some 100 kilometers across the border, where Sahro was born. After relocating to the Kakuma camp in northeastern Kenya, the family was accepted for refugee resettlement in Indianapolis, Indiana when Sahro was 10. After four months there, Somali friends in Lewiston suggested the Hassans join them in Maine.
“I feel humbled because of the experience I had at such a young age,” says Hassan. “Looking back, no one would choose to grow up in hardship, but I believe that if I can overcome my past, I can overcome anything.”
There was indeed much to overcome. When Hassan, her parents and seven younger siblings arrived in Lewiston in 2007, none of them spoke English. Her father needed work. Despite the obstacles, Sahro Hassan flourished.
“Sahro always stood out,” says Barbara Benjamin-McManus, Hassan’s middle-school teacher and mentor. “I remember that when she first came to school, most of the other Muslim girls wore long skirts with pants underneath. But she wore vibrant colors and was always dressed a little bit different, and she was never self-conscious.”
She adds that Hassan often expressed her desire to become a fashion designer. “I think she’s going to make it because she’s breaking a mold, and she is driven to excel. She is the first Muslim girl I know who’s gone into fashion design, and I told her to hold onto that dream!”
Hassan learned to sew at Tree Street Youth, an after-school and summer program for at-risk youth in downtown Lewiston. With its support, which included a donated sewing machine and fabric, she held her first fashion show in 2013, and Somali friends modelled her designs. Last year she graduated from Lewiston High School with honors, and she calls herself an “Islamanista”—her own moniker as a Muslim “fashionista.”
Hassan laughs when she recalls how unprepared she was for her fashion launch. “I had no clue what I was doing, so I just threw stuff together,” she says. “Some of the garments were even hard to walk in since I was still teaching myself how to sew.”
Fatuma Ali, her 18-year-old cousin and one of her models, recalls her own disbelief when Hassan told her she wanted to be a fashion designer. “I never really thought she was going to do it because in our culture we don’t do fashion or anything outside of the box. She was the first girl in our community to do something different.” Hassan has tried to find a good cultural mix, adds Ali. “We still keep our hijabs on, but she’s changing the designs. I think that’s really cool.”
With each show, Hassan’s sewing and production skills have improved. In 2013 and 2014, she held two at an outdoor plaza during the city’s summer Artwalk festivals. Local Lewiston residents filled the seats at her last show, Benjamin-McManus recalls. “Most of the spectators were white. Afterwards they came up to Sahro and wished her well. They were so supportive it blew me away,” she says. Among those who were impressed was Lewiston photographer Jim Walker, who offered to photograph her fashions and created her first professional portfolio—for free.
“The mere fact that Sahro Hassan is a known name in Lewiston demonstrates the impact she has on both the Somali and local community,” says Julia Sleeper, founder and director of Tree Street Youth. “I think she sees herself as someone working toward unifying populations by helping people to understand cultural differences using something she’s passionate about. She knows that what she is doing goes beyond making fashions and dresses for some of her friends and customers. It’s a much greater statement that affects the young Muslim women of her community as well as the community at large.”
Lewiston, Maine: The Accidental Melting Pot
Take an economically struggling Maine mill town of 36,600 and add to it nearly 5,000 Somalis seeking haven in a new country. On the surface, it hardly looks like a formula for success.
When the first substantial numbers of Somalis began arriving in 2001 in Lewiston, they were not welcomed with open arms. Unemployment was high, and locals feared that new arrivals would overburden social services and increase competition for the few jobs left after the closure of once-thriving textile mills.
Despite Lewiston’s economic slump, it was one of the US cities that Somali refugees themselves found attractive—through websites and word of mouth: good schools, affordable housing and, most important of all, a safe place to raise a family. Many brought a strong sense of community and entrepreneurship; they enrolled their children in the local public schools, signed up for English courses and found—or created—jobs.
Today, per-capita income in Lewiston is rising. The crime rate has dropped. The center of town, once called “The Combat Zone,” has new, family-owned grocery stores offering halal meats (prepared following the Islamic method of slaughter), and there are storefront mosques in between new organic-food cafes as well as other more conventional businesses.
“Challenges still exist,” comments Julia Sleeper, founder of Lewiston’s Tree Street Youth Center. “Acculturation is messy.” But relations, she says, continue to improve. This, she says, is “testimony to the strength of both communities.”
“Sahro is an amazing success story,” says Sleeper, “and an important peer role model for our other students at Tree Street.” Both Sleeper and her colleague Kim Sullivan continue to mentor Hassan as she pursues fashion design at Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston.
Sullivan maintains that Hassan’s ability to bridge cultures stems in part from her parents’ steadfast backing. “They are incredible,” she comments. They have always been supportive of Sahro in what she wants to do, even when it has not always seemed culturally appropriate to them.”
Hassan admits that her parents were at first confused. “My mother even told me that in our culture we have people who sew or tailor clothes—but not designers,” she explains. “My parents didn’t understand what a designer does, or how it could become a career.”
Hassan’s desire to launch her own business got a boost during her junior year at Lewiston when she joined the Youth Entrepreneurs Academy (yea) program sponsored by the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce. Chip Morrison, then president of the chamber and director of yea, interviewed Hassan when she applied. He wondered how this soft-spoken, small young woman was going to be able to promote her business idea. “But she had this incredible drive. You could feel it even though she didn’t articulate it very well in the beginning,” says Morrison, who observed her transformation over the 30-week after-school program.
In the end, she wowed the local investors, and they gave her the grant she needed to launch her business under the name Fashionuji. “Sahro is magnetic,” exclaims Morrison. “This young woman will not be denied. She is driven to succeed, and I would never be surprised if she later founded a Fortune 500 company. I have that much confidence in her.”
Today, it’s hard to find anyone in Lewiston who hasn’t heard of “Fashion Girl,” as Hassan is affectionately known. Young Muslim women inspired by her designs are sporting brighter colors and trendier patterns, and some local stores showcase her fashions. She has a growing fan club among non-Muslim girls in town.
Morrison’s confidence was well founded. As a result of the yea, in 2013 Hassan received first prize in Maine’s “Future Business Leaders of America” competition. Later that same year she represented Maine in the national Future Business Leaders of America competition. In 2014 she won the “Girls Rock Award” for entrepreneurship from Hardy Girls, Healthy Women, a Maine-based non-profit. That’s quite a list of accomplishments for a young woman who didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived in Lewiston eight years ago, let alone a word of fashion lingo.
The conversation, it appears, is just beginning.