By Kris Berggren
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Somali women who left refugee camps in Kenya or Ethiopia are building business lives out of the cold climate of Minnesota. Visible for now in checkout lanes, many maintain a tradition of pooling resources so they can become their own boss.
MINNEAPOLIS (WOMENSENEWS)--Sabah Yusuf wants to create what she calls a "first" for African women in the United States: a large department store that they collectively own and manage.
The women she's talking about are Somalis, who have made Minneapolis, a city of 382,000, home to the largest concentration of the East African group in the Western world. About 14,000 Somalis live in Hennepin County, which includes the city and its nearest suburbs.
Minnesota overall, with its frigid climate and population of 5 million that is 90 percent white, is home to more than 20,000 Somalis.
In a capital-pooling tradition harking back to her African homeland, Yusuf, executive director of the Aishah Center for Women, hopes that eventually 100 women will invest as much as $5,000 each in the Khadijah Women's Cooperative, which plans to own and run a store targeting Somali and other Minneapolis shoppers. By early February she expects to announce a location and finish a business plan.
But Yusuf will also be pleased if the Aishah Center can raise even 10 percent of the seed money from owner-investors. She says at least 33 women have expressed interest, as have institutional backers such as the Women's Foundation of Minnesota in Minneapolis and the Christian Sharing Fund in St. Paul, a local counterpart of the Washington-based Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
"It's too early yet to predict a timetable or what will happen," says Lee Roper-Batker, president and CEO of the Women's Foundation of Minnesota. "Women have to have big audacious goals. That is the way change happens."
Yusuf's dream may be big, but she and other Somalis say their countrywomen have always been enterprising. Back home many operated cottage industries selling produce from family farms or making clothing. Here, many carry on that tradition by operating small retail shops in one of several Somali malls or "souks" in Minneapolis. Central to the success of both is the practice of Somali women supporting each other's business enterprises.
Faduma Hashi owns the Starlight Cafe, a bakery and coffee shop selling Western and Somali pastries and other delicacies in the Midtown Global Market that features dozens of ethnic shops and restaurants in a large mixed-use office and residential building.
"Nothing beats being your own boss," says Hashi, a mother of eight who has lived in the United States for 20 years.
Hashi received start-up assistance from the African Development Center of Minnesota, which teaches U.S. financial and business practices to African entrepreneurs and offers loans with a special repayment structure that suits Muslims, whose religion restricts paying or charging interest.
Minneapolis also offers an alternative financing program that matches funds lent by organizations such as the African Development Center.
About 60 percent of small business owners seeking loans through the African Development Center are women, says Nimo Farah, coordinator for the center's program to assist those in the process of buying their first home.
Many families arrived from refugee camps in Kenya or Ethiopia with little but a few suitcases and phone numbers of relatives or resettlement agencies. Besides poverty, hurdles include the language barrier and high rates of single parenthood. Women wearing traditional Muslim dress are also visible targets for racial and religious hostility, especially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But Minnesota has a strong economy and abundance of service-sector jobs and female community leaders say economic and educational opportunities here trump the hardships.
"I am very proud of the work and the energy that Somali women put in their families and how much they've struggled," says Farah, who arrived here as a child with her mother and seven siblings in 1994. Their father joined the family this year. "They find creative ways to keep their families together and put food on the table . . . I don't know if I would be able to do half of what my mom has done."
"I think overall the Somali women are doing so well when you see what they have been through," agrees Amira Ahmed, a community organizer and interpreter.
Ahmed, a divorced mother of three, estimates that 80 percent of Somali families she works with are headed by single mothers. Many men died in the fighting or stayed behind while sending their families abroad, and divorce is not uncommon. She says women with large families frequently hold two jobs while managing their households and sending money to relatives back home or helping out others here.
Many Somali women are employed in the retail sector while they save for the day when they start their own businesses. While not all employers are tolerant of observant Muslims' requests for prayer breaks and dress codes that accommodate flowing headscarves or long-sleeved clothing, some are, at least to a degree. For example, it's common to see hijab-wearing employees staffing checkout lanes and dressing rooms at retail stores like TJ Maxx and Target.
"Target is the target," jokes Safiya Ahmed (no relation to Amira Ahmed), a biochemistry and medical technology major at the University of Minnesota who's lived here for seven years. She doesn't work at Target but has high school friends who do, and she appreciates the company's efforts to accommodate Muslims' modest dress code. Target's local retail employees may wear skirts instead of the usual khaki pants, along with a head scarf in black, white or Target's signature red. "It really made me feel good (to know) there are some ways we can negotiate," she said.
About three years ago in response to employee requests, the Mall of America in suburban Bloomington created a meditation room that employees may use for prayer, said Dan Jasper, the mall's director of public relations.
The mall, the nation's largest, employs about 1,200 people in administration, maintenance and support staffs, while its hundreds of tenant stores, restaurants and entertainment venues employ 10,000 more.
Even at "hijab-friendly" stores, occasional flaps occur over how Muslim employees should balance their religious duties with their job requirements.
Target did not respond to a request for an interview to discuss its policies on those issues, but a Minneapolis store manager said it handles employees' concerns about race or religion on a case-by-case basis. For example, Muslim employees at the downtown store who wish to pray have arranged to rotate their breaks.
One Muslim employee verified that she is willing to scan packaged pork products but when another Muslim isn't, the employee might be transferred to a non-grocery department.
A cashiering job may be a springboard to economic stability, but it's rarely the ultimate goal of Somali women, says Yusuf, who has lived in the United States for 17 years, first in San Diego and, since 1998, in Minneapolis. "They love doing business; they love being their own boss."
Traditionally, Yusuf says, Somali women supported one another's businesses and provided capital infusions by pooling resources in a "hagebad." Each woman in a hagebad contributes a monthly amount and takes her turn receiving the kitty on a rotating basis.
That practice continues to thrive here, Yusuf says, giving women access to funds they otherwise would not have, since many avoid credit cards and conventional banking services because of their religious beliefs.
Kris Berggren is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a columnist and contributor to the National Catholic Reporter.
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