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Somali Women’s Advancement in Ohio: "New Americans Initiative"

Khadra Mohamed is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

Khadra Mohamed

Khadra Mohamed is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

It would be difficult for anyone to move into a new country and re-learn everything—a new language, cultural nuances, and social environment. I arrived in Ohio in 2000 amid a large influx of Somali immigrants to the state. There were no existing community-based organizations at the time, so a group of Somali women, including myself, met to form a community service organization to facilitate the smooth integration of the Somalis into their new home. Since then, the Somali community in Ohio has gone through remarkable transformations.

The greatest needs in the community were English as Second Language (ESL) classes, employment services, and housing assistance. We established successful partnerships with existing social service organizations such as the Jewish Family Services and educational institutions including the Ohio State University. We were successful in recruiting volunteer navigators and securing funding for English classes and job placement services. We also engaged in an effort to educate local elected officials and policymakers about the needs and aspirations of our community. One of the most rewarding aspects of the work that we started was that a significant number of Somalis have become U.S. citizens and have enrolled in college.

Somalis, wherever they are, have a natural gift for entrepreneurship. Somali women are particularly skilled at successfully starting and running small businesses. They even have a unique system, known in Somali as “Ayuuto,” for raising capital for new business endeavors. Many Somalis have become U.S. citizens and have started successful businesses. Now, there are hundreds of Somali business in Columbus, Ohio alone.

This progress from a new immigrant community to locally integrated part of the Columbus fabric did not come easy. It came as a result of not only hard work by the community but also the embracing nature of the City of Columbus. Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman believes that it is not just enough to be tolerant towards diversity; it is necessary to embrace it. That is why he created the New Americans Initiative, an office that gives immigrants access to city services.

To recognize the economic and social contributions of Somalis in Ohio, I proposed to the Board of Directors of the Center for Somali Women’s Advancement that we start an annual recognition day for citizenship and entrepreneurship in Ohio on March 8—and they agreed. Now, every year, we celebrate the contributions of diverse women and call for a better society in which gender parity in politics, health, employment, family life, education, media, and culture becomes a reality. 

This is a lesson for all of us that we need to take initiative and work together to accomplish real things; with this approach, we can turn brilliant ideas into impressive outcomes.

Khadra Mohamed is the President and CEO of the Center for Somali Women’s Advancement.