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Somali nonprofit struggles to meet immigrant community needs in Boston

Martin Desmarais
Somali nonprofit struggles to meet immigrant community needs in Boston
Abdirahman Yusuf, executive director of the Somali Development Center in Jamaica Plain, says the organization, which has been around since 1996, is struggling to find the funding to continue to offer the crucial services it provides to Somali immigrants.

After almost two decades as the only social services organization serving Somali immigrants in the Boston region, the Somali Development Center in Jamaica Plain is facing a looming challenge as the population of immigrants it is helping grows, while the funding continues to diminish.

According to Somali Development Center Executive Director Abdirahman Yusuf, who was one of a group that started the organization in 1996 and has held his current position since 2000, the operating budget has been close to $500,000 annually in the past, but now is less than $200,000.

In fact, the center, which serves an immigrant community that is commonly working for minimum wage or slightly more, now relies on these same individuals to help keep the center open by helping to pay for the rent. Last summer, members of Boston’s Somali community banded together and committed to paying rent from July 2103 to July 2014 to keep the center open for at least one more year.

And Yusuf says that the center’s staff all feel like the clock is ticking. Currently the center operates with two full-time staff members, five part-time staff members and 3 volunteers.

Yet, the center provides a range of services to immigrants coming to this country and to the growing number who are now well-established here and growing their families.

These services include: housing search assistance, adult literacy programs, translation, citizenship assistance, job readiness training and job searches, newcomer orientation and acculturation, legal assistance, health-care access, elder care and youth support programs.

“We provide a social service to people that normally would have quite a challenge if they were to go other places. For the simple reason that they are a linguistic minority group, who are also a racial minority — being black — and also a religious minority being Muslim,” said Yusuf. “We have been very instrumental in mainstreaming and helping these new African immigrants integrate into the American life and the American culture and be part of the larger society and feel like they belong.”

While immigrants from Somalia are the main people the center serves helps immigrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Liberia, Guinea, Ghana and Djibouti.

Yusuf said that the center has relied on some of the more traditional funding methods for social services organizations, including writing grant proposals and soliciting funding from city, state and private foundations. But he said that since 2008, in particular, the amount of funding the center has been able to garner has been going down.

“I don’t think we are well-recognized and appreciated by the legislators, by the people who decide who gets funded and who gets what, which is somewhat not in line with the really hard work and really important work that we do here as an ethnic-based community organization,” he said. “We don’t have dedicated resources or line items within the budgets of either state or city that would ensure the continuity of this.”

Yusuf says one of the biggest challenges for the Somali center is competing for the funds with bigger nonprofit organizations that have more staff that can dedicate their time to fundraising and grant-writing — as well as providing the critical services they need to offer. At the Somali center, just a few people are trying to do it all.

“As the executive director I should be out there networking with folks who are in positions of power and have access to resources, but when you don’t have enough resources here to hire qualified staff to run the day-to-day affairs of the organization, then I am also stuck providing direct services,” Yusuf said. “The clients sitting out there need help, I need to be out there downtown, but if I don’t serve these clients I am not doing my work, yet to do my work I need to be out there networking and soliciting.”

While much of the immigration reform and debate currently ongoing focuses on undocumented immigrants and border control, Somali immigrants do not fall into this picture as Yusuf estimates that 99 percent of the Somalis who come to the United States do so legally as refugees from the war-torn country or as family sponsored immigrants brought over to rejoin other legal immigrants.

Their situation is similar to Yusuf’s, who came to the U.S. 30 years ago and is now an American citizen. He says he would like to see the federal government recognize the legal immigrants from Somali and other sub-Saharan African countries with programs to provide orientation, acculturation and citizenships assistance.

“But we are not getting that,” Yusuf added. “We have the people but we don’t have the resources.”

Locally, the Somali community has been increasingly active in supporting politicians and Yusuf said the center helped to organize support for the campaigns of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and new mayor Martin Walsh.

According to Yusuf, the center has received good support from both, but in its growing time of need would love to see this support translated into funds that could keep it going.

Yusuf also praised the strong support of U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano.

“He has helped us a great deal in terms of helping us with whatever problems are clients are having,” Yusuf said. “He is a really a wonderful man.”

Rep. Capuano in turn, praised the efforts of the Somali Development Center.

“The Somali Development Center is a powerful and effective advocate in the community. My office works closely with them on a number of issues, including immigration and refugee questions. We do what we can to help the center reunite families and provide support as they navigate the path to citizenship,” Capuano said in a statement to the Banner.

Though the Somali immigrant community in the area is smaller than many others, it is growing.

Yusuf said the center estimates for Somali immigrants in Boston is about 6,000 with a total of between 12,000 and 15,000 in New England. The U.S. numbers for Somali immigrants are difficult to determine definitively, but several studies suggest approximately 85,000, with as many as 25,000 living in Minnesota.

In Boston, Yusuf said he has seen the community grow in size and presence in his two decades of work with the center. For example, he said when the center started in 1996 there were no Somali businesses in Boston, and now there are about a dozen, including three Somali restaurants and two cafes.

“These are people who employ other people, who provide goods and services that the community as well as the neighbors and everybody else appreciates and needs,” he said. “The people who have started all these businesses, we have served as clients — at the beginning — helping them get some sort of affordable housing, learning English, getting their immigration status in order, becoming a U.S. citizen. We have helped with all those things and now they are helping themselves and becoming successful, as they should pretty much in line with the American tradition.”

For all its success, Yusuf stressed that the center’s needs are not great and he has hope that it will be able to find the funding necessary to continue helping the growing immigrant community it supports.

“It is a struggle, but yet it is an important work and an important institution that cannot collapse or cannot be closed,” he said.

“We are not asking for millions of dollars,” he added. “We want to be an asset and something to be proud of, an addition to this mosaic city of Boston, as did other immigrants before us.”

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