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Long gone from Somalia, she yearns to return

Fort Mills Times
Saturday, June 01, 2013

Amal Hassan watches change coming to her home country while she is thousands of miles away.

The 23-year-old will graduate from St. Cloud State University after this summer with a degree in women's studies and a minor in human relationships.

The St. Cloud woman is already planning and dreaming about the future, with a part of her heart remaining in her native Somalia, the St. Cloud Times reported (http://on.sctimes.com/16n2Dlp).

One day, after she learns everything she can here, Hassan wants to return to help women and children. She wants to join a growing movement in the African country to help give voices to the two groups.

"Women and children in our world are the most neglected in society," Hassan said. "My passion is not to create a voice for them, but to guide them to find their own voices."

Her work starts here. Hassan squeezes in school, volunteer responsibilities and work into a crammed schedule. Everything prepares her for a future in the war-torn country.

Hassan, a devout Muslim, strives to help fellow immigrants adjust to a new and often confusing American culture.

Her motto is simple.

"Think locally, act globally," Hassan said.

Hassan works as a women's advocate at Anna Marie's domestic abuse shelter and as a family visit supervisor at the YMCA.

She also volunteers with the Greater St. Cloud Area Thrive coalition, which provides access to early intervention services for immigrant and refugee families and the children ages birth to 3. Hassan also serves on the board of directors of the African Women's Alliance, a group bringing together area African women.

"Amal is a very grounded and passionate person about women's issues," said Janette Yiran, the alliance's executive director. "She is very engaging when talking about women's issues."

Hassan understands the challenges immigrants and refugees face. She left Somalia when she was a year old. Her family settled in Nairobi, Kenya, and was extremely poor.

She, her father and siblings moved in 2001 to Minnesota.

She was 11 years old and lived with her aunts for a month in the Twin Cities while her dad got established in St. Cloud.

Adjusting to a new culture was painful and perplexing. Hitting children with a belt is a common and accepted form of discipline in most African countries, including Somalia, Hassan said.

American expectations of acceptable child care are confusing, said Jane Ellison, Thrive project manager. For example, it's illegal to harm your child in the United States, yet it's legal to spank a child. Many immigrants and refugees worry their children will be taken away, she said.

Hassan is the Somali community representative for Thrive's access project. The project promotes conversations across cultures. Topics include abuse, neglect, discipline and nutrition.

Hassan's family faced questions about the topics after moving here. The Somali people want to learn and want to do what's best for their children, she said. It just takes time to figure out new expectations.

"She really does have the perspective of the Somali community and also about coming into the country and making adjustments," Ellison said. "I appreciated the depth and breadth of the experience she brings."

That shared experience has helped Hassan create relationships throughout communities.

Her career at Anna Marie's started when she had a month left at high school. Hassan's family was long known for helping women in abusive relationships when Anna Marie's called their house. They needed a translator for a Somali client. The nonprofit offered to pay her $100. She insisted it was free.

She soon started to officially work at the shelter.

"Over the years, I wanted to build a trust-based relationship with women in my community," Hassan said. "It's tough, but it works."

The number of immigrant women served at the shelter is relatively small, but there has been an uptick, said Rita Koll, women's program coordinator. Six immigrant women entered the shelter in 2012, compared with three in 2011 and one in 2010. Hassan is a powerful partner for the nonprofit.

"There are cultural taboos that prevent people to come forward," Koll said. "The trust they put into her is a doorway for us into their lives."

Hassan hopes to start her master's degree in diplomacy. She intends on continuing her work in the community.

She prepares herself for a future making a difference in a country she hasn't been to in 22 years.

"That is the country where I'm from," Hassan said. "There are a lot of Somali feminists coming out and risking their lives for empowering women. I don't want to take a step back."


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