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An Old Social Tradition Produces Helping Hands
Somalis' Coffee Meetings Inspire an Association For Fellow Immigrants
By Nancy Trejos , Washington Post Staff Writer
Germantown, October 6, 2005 (The Washington Post) – On most Friday nights, when weather permits, Ahmed Elmi can be found sitting on the patio of the Caribou Coffee shop in Silver Spring with more than a dozen other Somali Americans.
They come from all over Montgomery and Prince George's counties to participate in a roundtable of sorts. They wonder why so many second- and third-generation Somalis are not speaking Somali. They worry about parents who are not enrolling their children in pre-kindergarten, and they talk about ways to get elderly Somalis better health care.
The needs among Maryland's Somali community were so great, Elmi said, that the group of friends decided they needed to do more than talk about the problems over coffee and tea. Because Somalia has not had an embassy in the United States since 1991, the friends, many of them decades-long U.S. residents, thought there was a void they could fill, at least on the state level. So in May 2004, after meeting for seven months, they decided to create the Silver Spring-based Somali American Community Association (SACA) to help Somali newcomers in Maryland.
"The main goal is to help these newcomers become acclimated enough to successfully continue their daily living . . . to be part of society and understand the basic laws of the country," said Elmi, 43, the chairman of the group.
The co-founders of SACA said they know first-hand the importance of having people to turn to when one is adjusting to a new country. Most came from Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, and its surrounding areas. Those who arrived first often opened up their homes to those who came after them.
"We have to come together and help our people," said Mohamud Abdi, 45, the treasurer of SACA and a Germantown resident. "When you are from outside the U.S., all you see is Hollywood and movies, but when they come here and face the realities, they don't have anyone to speak on their behalf."
Abdi helped Elmi when he arrived around Christmas of 1983. Elmi immigrated to the United States for school. He completed an undergraduate degree in biology and psychology at George Mason University and a master's degree in public health at George Washington University. Now a Bowie resident with his own public health consulting firm, he has taken other Somalis into his home when they arrive in this country.
"You had that network and that's how we worked," he said.
That network grew larger in the 1990s when Somalia's central government collapsed amid civil war. Before the political turmoil, Somalis tended to emigrate to the United States by choice, mostly for higher education, Elmi said. But once the civil war started, Somalis moved here as refugees.
According to the 2000 Census, 396 people in Maryland said their ancestry was Somali. In Montgomery County, 189 people reported having Somali ancestry. SACA officials believe there are many more than that, judging by anecdotal evidence such as information gathered from resettlement agencies. Maryland -- in particular, Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- has seen a migrant influx from all over Africa in recent years.
SACA officials have a long list of services they provide the newcomers, many of whom do not speak English. They offer English language classes and often serve as translators at school meetings or court hearings. They help elderly and sick Somalis get medical care. They raise money and gather supplies for recently arrived Somalis, as they did last year when a group of refugees settled in Baltimore. They have other projects they hope to undertake: They want to start Saturday classes and after-school programs, create a mentoring program and offer college preparatory courses to Somali students.
The group does not, however, get involved in politics. "We try to stay away from politics because we find politics divisive," said board member Mohamud Haji, 49, a Bowie resident who runs a technology consulting firm.
In its 1 1/2 years of existence, SACA has become a more structured and established group. Now incorporated, the association charges a membership fee of $50 and operates in a temporary office in Silver Spring. There are 38 members and 14 volunteers running the association. The board members have their official meetings every month at the Silver Spring Library.
But the founders said the Friday night gatherings are still the backbone of the organization. SACA members once raised $5,000 through the Friday night gathering to help a Somali family pay for a funeral.
"That's something we brought from the old country," Haji said. "This is the tradition of sitting down, drinking tea and talking."
"Somalis have . . . an oral tradition," Elmi said. "People always share information at a gathering place."
On a recent Friday night, they sat around a table with paper cups of coffee and tea. It was a chilly evening, but they chose to sit outside anyway. By 7 p.m., six had gathered. Every few minutes a new person would arrive, to enthusiastic greetings from the others.
"The pioneers," said SACA vice chairman Khalif Hired, 50, pointing to his friends.
The group has diverse ages, professions and backgrounds.
There's 30-year-old Guled Kassim, a Silver Spring resident who works as a real estate settlement officer. Kassim arrived in the United States in 1985 when he was just 10. He served in the Marines, stationed in the South and overseas. Kassim said he has tried to honor his Somali roots by continuing to speak the language and helping refugees. Many Somalis younger than he, however, have not, he said.
"There's nothing like a sense of identity," he said.
There's Hussein Ahmed, a 50-year-old Somali-Ethiopian, whom the others in the group called an "elder" because he was a respected community leader back home. He has been in the United States for 13 years, living in Silver Spring, but has not been able to work because he is disabled.
He does not speak English and turned to the organization to help him navigate the juvenile court system when his son was arrested. He said he would not have been able to help his son without SACA. "How many other Somali families are facing difficulties?" he said through a translator. "That's why this organization is so important."