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A New Group Seeks to Be Voice of Somali Community in Portland

Friday, June 24, 2011

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According to the state, Portland's Somali population now stands at around 5,000. Over the last decade a handful of grassroots groups have cropped up to support that community. But a new group IS aspiring to overcome funding and political challenges to be the largest and most comprehensive of them all, and serve as the voice for the Somali community in its adopted city.

"The most important goal we have is to unify the community,"> said Mahmoud Hassan.

He is helping to lead the brand-new Somali Community Resource Center as vice-chairman of the board. The plan is to hold English and citizenship classes in a space newly-leased on Forest Avenue, to mentor troubled youth, and help people apply for jobs. But leaders also want to use the center to encourage more political participation, to use it as a place.

"Where you can get the word out in terms of what's happening around us, what they can do to effect the political process, not only in the local level but also statewide and federal level," Hassan said.

Josie Huang: "Do you think the Somali community right now has the political clout commensurate to the number of people here?"

Mahmoud Hassan: "Most definitely not. We have a much great number of people who can vote as opposed to those who can actually go out and vote and we're hoping down the line, that will change."

The past year has seen a spike in political engagement by Portland's Somali community. Somalis were on the forefront of a campaign to allow non-citizens to vote in city elections. Mohammed Dini, one of the leaders of that campaign, also ran for a state representative seat.

That both campaigns were unsuccessful has not dissuaded Somali immigrants from embracing the American political process. Hassan says in fact, about 60 members of the community participated in an election to pick the interim executive director.

Hassan, who works for the school department as its liasion to Somali parents, says that Somalis can actually boast they had Africa's first Democratic election in the late 1960s, but that memory has been wiped away by the totalitarian rule that followed.

"So the younger generation of Somalis is probably not familiar with the Democratic process," said Hassan. "And we're each and everyone's vote counts and that government is elected by the people and So we're basically introducing the idea back to the community."

The ambitious goals of the new resource center, to be a clearinghouse, umbrella organization is not without its skeptics in the community.

"I really like the dream to be true but it needs a lot of homework to become an umbrella," said Mohamud Barre, executive director of another Portland community group known as the Somali Cultural & Development Association.

Barre's group provides services ranging from interpreting to putting out a community newsletter every three months to helping Census takers. He said that coordinators of the new resource center have not gotten enough buy-in from members of the community, including him.

"My organization was established in 2002 -- I was not invited," Barre said. "I think they are some group of friends they would like to do something good. Yes they did a lot of meetings but we need more than that."

Holly Stover is acting director of the state's Office of Multicultural Affairs. She agreed that there is strength in numbers.

"Anytime that we have a refugee group that wants to represent the culture and represent the community in a positive way that's going to benefit the total population through employment or through acclimation to life here in Maine," said Stover.

But Stover is concerned that the different community groups may end up competing for the same limited grant dollars if they are providing similar services.

"I think we need to be realistic that the resources that we have are finite and for any group looking to develop and expand beyond what already exists it's going to call on them to be really creative in fundraising and financing," said Stover.

Abdirahman Osman, acting director of the new resource center, acknowledged that the group has very little money other than the small donations of the community as he walked around the center's new space -- the empty lower level of an office building on Forest Avenue in Portland.

"This area here could be the meeting area, workshops and where we can do some classes," said Osman.

There is no furniture, other than two folding chairs Osman borrowed from a friend. But he already has grand visions for what the place will become. Besides a place for education and political organizing, he sees it as a safe haven for Somali teens who've gotten mixed up in drugs, or dropped out of school.

"The parents -- they are trying their best," Osman said. "They are always, always running after them and trying to help them. We want to help the parents to help their children."

Osman, a case manager for the city who's been working with the homeless and with refugees for nearly a decade, will serve as acting director until November. The plan is to hold another election then, in hopes that more community members will participate, making it a more democratic process.

The group is holding a launch ceremony at Portland High School Friday evening June 24 until 7:00 pm.

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