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Somali Success School: Helping Refugees Succeed in Minneapolis

This is part of our series, “Banking on Change,” which showcases local entrepreneurs who are creating a positive impact in their community. The series spotlights one local business each month. Above illustration: Amal Abdalla, founder of Somali Success School, by Justine Lecouffe

In December of 1990, Amal Abdalla found herself stuck in a foreign country.

She was 7 months pregnant and had come to Washington, D.C., from Somalia for a medical issue.  But while in the United States, civil war broke out in her home country. The soon-to-be mother of two was now an asylum seeker.

Amal was more than 8,000 miles from home with little more than the clothes on her back and a newfound language and cultural barrier to deal with.

While Amal ultimately stayed in the States and successfully acclimated, her story, she said, is different than most refugees.  Amal had a prior formal education, and spoke multiple languages. She had also traveled extensively before coming to the U.S., giving her an advantage as an immigrant.

Her experience as a new immigrant led her to action. In 1998, she started teaching ESL to Somalis, and in 2005 she created Somali Success School, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that helps East African and other refugees and asylum seekers transition to life in the United States.

“There was so much need here,” said Amal of starting the organization.  “And to be honest a lot of it had to do with how lonely and isolated I felt when I was new in the U.S. – what I wish somebody had taught or done for me.”

Minnesota has the largest concentration of Somali residents in the country – more than 50,000 – according to a 2019 Star Tribune article. Jobs and a welcoming community have brought Somalia natives to the state, which has such a large Somali population in the Twin Cities that Minneapolis’s Cedar Riverside neighborhood is dubbed “Little Mogadishu.”

Amal adds that Somali people tend to be very “community oriented,” and “linked to their social circles.”

Somali Success School offers literacy classes, workforce training and helps connect immigrants to housing and other basic necessities. Many of its clients come to the country with a lack of literacy and health issues caused by conflict at home.

“Our average participant comes here with multiple barriers, one of them being Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD),” said Abdalla. “These are people who lived in a war zone or in a refugee camp for decades.”

Somali Success School operates out of its new building at 2812 East 26th Street in Minneapolis. The organization moved into the spot in January of 2020. While the pandemic forced classes to go remote, the building is now open to services by appointment.

One thing that’s been reiterated during the pandemic, said Amal, is the need for minority friendly environments in healthcare. Culturally specific services are extremely important to success in services, she said.

“We serve clients with high need for services, and low English skills. That’s who looks for cultural competence” said Amal. “They just want to deal with a fellow Somali, so they can speak freely, and better understand American culture”

Somali Success is working with healthcare providers to remedy the issue of inequity in care access. Amal said having more diversity in leadership roles is key to building trust and equity.

“When women come to Somali Success School, I think it’s important they see another woman in a leadership role,” she said. “Representation is important, and inspiring to new Americans.”

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