Somali nonprofit struggles to meet immigrant community needs in Boston

Martin Desmarais | 4/2/2014, 11 a.m.
After almost two decades as the only social services organization serving Somali immigrants in the Boston region, the Somali Development ...
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. Banner Photo

“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.”