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Helping Boston-Area Somalis - 2004-06-09

Refugees to the United States are resettled by one of ten State Department–approved resettlement agencies, which make sure that the newcomers have housing, food and other forms of basic assistance when they arrive. But there are also private organizations and groups, often composed of immigrants from a particular country, that help refugees adjust to life in a strange new place. Today on New American Voices, meet the co-founder and president of one such organization that provides social services to the African immigrant community of the Boston, Massachusetts area.

Abdi Rahman Yusuf is a tall, bespectacled man in his early forties who came to the United States from Somalia in 1980 as a student. Political unrest back home prevented him from returning once he had received his master’s degree in public administration, so he built a life for himself in Boston, becoming a public health program manager and community activist. When thousands of Somalis, displaced by the civil war in their country, began arriving in the Boston area in the early 90s, he and other Somali-Americans founded the Somali Development Center. Mr. Yusuf says it provides the newcomers with the basic resources and skills they need to build productive lives.

“We train them in how to read and write English and prepare them for work in the United States. Some of our clients have never worked in their lives before, so just teaching them, providing job readiness opportunities and things like that. We are also a liaison for them and the larger community that they are living in right now, sort of a cultural broker, language interpreters for them.”

The volunteers of the Somali Development Center offer basic information to new immigrants and refugees – in their own languages -- on everything from how to access benefits from state and federal agencies to where to look for affordable housing. The Center provides adult literacy classes and training in vocational skills, and has special services for seniors, young people, and women, focusing on health concerns and domestic violence issues.

An important part of the Center’s work is helping immigrants understand the culture of their new country, and educating the Boston-area community about the newcomers in their midst. Mr. Yusuf says Bostonians have been generally very accepting of the immigrants, although tensions heightened for a while after the September 11th terrorist attacks.

“You know, Boston is a very metropolitan and diverse city, so people are not discriminated against, everybody just becomes part of the larger mosaic of the community. Things got a little bit tough for us, Somalis, given as that we’re Muslims from Africa, after the experience of September 11th… You know, the Somali women tend to wear their traditional clothing when they go out on the street, and some obviously uninformed locals would just mistake them for people they had perhaps seen on TV, and start harassing them and in some cases attack them. So we worked with the police and the mayor of the city to make sure that it doesn’t happen, there were a number of community meetings held to deal with the larger community impact of September 11th -- and everything’s fine now.”

As an immigrant himself, and having worked with refugees from Somalia and other African countries for over a decade now, Abdi Rahman Yusuf is realistic about the immigrant experience.

“It’s always very challenging, and very difficult. You know that refugees, before they come here, they really expect to be coming to the land of milk and honey. They think everything’s easy, it’s going to be fine, but, you know, they find out fairly quickly that it’s quite difficult, you have to work hard, you have to make a lot of adjustments, you have to make a lot of sacrifices, you have to change a lot of things about the way you live and conduct yourself. But in the long run, I think everybody benefits. But yeah, it is difficult, and it’s very important for people to know that. The best way that I can describe it is that for some of the refugees, it’s like an American-born being sent to the planet Mars and being told to fend for yourself. Essentially, that’s what it’s like coming to the United States for some of the refugees.”

Mr. Yusuf considers himself fully integrated in American life, although he says his Somali background continues to be an important part of who he is.

“I am an American Somali. You know, when I came here I was 18 years old, fully formed in terms of who I am, and self-definition. I am Somali, I speak the language fluently, I keep up with what’s going on at home. At the same time I am really a Bostonian, because I spent the majority of my adult life in the city of Boston, Massachusetts. So yeah, I’m a bi-cultural individual, that’s sort of the best way I can define myself.”

Since 1992, more than 5000 Somalis have settled in the Boston metropolitan area. Through his work with the Somali Development Center, Abdi Rahman Yusuf hopes to help many of them make the same successful transition to life in the United States that he did.