Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008

Somali center helps refugees adjust to U.S. life

Weekly programs offer job training, language help, tutoring and support

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
At the Takoma Park Community Center, (from left) Anissa Ahmed, 8, of Silver Spring, Nimco Hired, 9 of Silver Spring, volunteer Brittany Vasseur of Washington, D.C., and Amina Osman, 8, of Rockville chat during an open house for the Somali American Community Association’s Mobile Family Learning Center.
Ahmed Elmi came to the United States from Somalia in 1983, several years before a civil war engulfed his homeland and led to the worldwide displacement of some 1.5 million Somalis, many of whom came to Maryland as refugees.

‘‘Somalis came in the beginning for high education,” said Elmi, who has earned degrees from George Mason and George Washington universities. ‘‘But the civil war brought a lot of people who couldn’t even read or write.”

With an ever-growing influx of refugees who often face barriers to language, employment and education, Elmi said he and other local Somalis decided to create a program that could serve the more than 4,000 Somalis he estimates live in the area.

In 2004, they founded the Somali American Community Association, a nonprofit group that provides job training, language assistance and tutoring to Somalis of all ages and hosts classes every Saturday at the Takoma Park Community Center.

‘‘Some people, when they come here, they don’t know how to use a refrigerator or turn on the heat,” said Khalif Hired, the group’s vice chairman, who came to the United States from Somalia in 1979 to attend Ball State University in Indiana.

On Saturday, more than 20 students came to the Community Center to receive assistance from one of the group’s 12 volunteer instructors.

In one room, Lisa Gilbert, a college coordinator, passed out an article about a man who worked his way from a Somali refugee camp to Princeton University.

‘‘We’re going to talk about your dreams and how those dreams can be possible,” she told the dozen students who ranged from sixth-graders to college freshmen during a conversation about their plans for college and careers.

In the next room, volunteer instructor Susan Jenkins talked to a room of women wearing hijab, Muslim headscarves, about ways to succeed in the American workplace ‘‘while maintaining a Muslim or Islamic perspective,” by dressing appropriately and avoiding potentially sacrilegious situations such as employee happy hour.

After the lesson, the women practiced their typing skills on laptops purchased by the organization through a grant.

‘‘They’re not isolated,” said Elmi, SACA’s chairman, of the more than 20 Somalis who come regularly to classes. ‘‘They want to be part of the mainstream society, but they do it in their own time.”

The Saturday classes, part of the group’s Mobile Family Learning Center, are one of the several services offered. Another, the Family-Tutor Connection, trains volunteers who are paired with families to help their children with homework.

Hired said many children of refugees speak better English than their parents, which creates problems when parents try to help their children with schoolwork.

Mako Weheliye, a Burtonsville resident who has been in the United States for 18 years, said one of the program’s tutors has been able to help her four children, who range in age from 8 to 17, with homework in nearly all their subjects.

‘‘They have a lot of homework and different classes,” she said. ‘‘If I help them, I do. But sometimes I can’t. I don’t understand.”

Mohamed Mohamed, a Rockville resident, said he started bringing his 8-year-old daughter to the Saturday classes after he read about the group on the Internet.

‘‘I usually get help with reading and math and other subjects,” said his daughter Amina, a third-grader.

Elmi said that while the SACA focuses primarily on Somalis, they will not turn away others and added that people from Ethiopia, Senegal and Sierra Leone have come for assistance.

‘‘We have all these people calling us from everywhere in Maryland, seeking some of our services,” he said, emphasizing that all of the classes depend on volunteers, and that the group is always in need of people willing to commit time to teaching a class or tutoring a student.

Elmi describes the situation in Somalia as ‘‘the worst anarchy,” in which there is close to no government, and a litany of human rights abuses. But when refugees enter the United States, they face other, albeit less grave, challenges, he said, which he hopes the Somali American Community Association can help them overcome.

Learn more

To contact the Somali American Community Association, visit, e-mail, or call 301-565-0320.