Immigrant Ohio

A Closer Look At Columbus's Somali Community

Editor's note

A team of Kent State journalists made a trip out to Columbus in February to speak to members of the Somali community living within the city. Columbus is home to the second-largest Somali coummunity in the United States, and Mayor Andrew Ginther has hinted at branding the city as a safe place for immigrants and refugees.

The following are stories from the community and local government.

Columbus politicians push for sanctuary

Senior Reporter

In the wake of presidential executive orders intended to stem the flow of immigrants into the United States, Ohio’s capital has become a hub of pragmatic resistance and enforced its status as a welcoming home to a growing immigrant community.

Columbus is experiencing a two-pronged push to make the city’s immigrant population protected with policy and included with culture. On one hand, Mayor Andrew Ginther passed executive orders to expand and reinforce Columbus’ immigration policies. On the other, the city is experiencing a groundswell of grassroots support to designate Columbus as a “sanctuary city.”

The Columbus, Ohio, skyline. Home to more than 55,000 Somali citizens. // Andrew Keiper

While there is no official definition of a sanctuary city, most acknowledge that it’s a label given to cities that pledge to protect immigrants from federal detainment and deportation. Recently, Cincinnati adopted the label and pledged to not enforce federal immigration laws against undocumented immigrants, some of whom are here illegally, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

The mayor’s four-part executive orders, which were issued on Feb. 3, barred city resources from being used for the “detecting or apprehending of persons based on suspected immigration status.” They also reinforced the city’s pledge for equal access to public services for immigrants and its support of the resettlement of refugees within the city. Conspicuously absent from his orders was any mention of law enforcement, which critics say is a glaring omission.

“The value of claiming the sanctuary city name is to show that Democratic politicians and Democratic mayors have any integrity left at all,” Austin Kocher, founding president of the Central Ohio Worker’s Center, said. “That is electoral politics, that doesn’t necessarily make immigrants safe. Making immigrants safe is about making sure our local law enforcement is not doing the work of ICE.”

Kocher is among the community activists who think the mayor’s actions don’t go far enough to address the collusion between city, county and federal law enforcement agencies when it comes to immigration policy.

“We still have a lot of arrests from the Columbus Police Department that lead to deportation,” Kocher said. “We really need our local Fraternal Order of Police … to come out and say that they are focused on local safety and local law enforcement and not doing the work of ICE. We haven’t seen that. And we haven’t seen that strong of a statement from the mayor yet.”

However, many in the city see the mayor’s orders as a good first step in protecting immigrants. Among such supporters is Elizabeth Brown, a first-term councilwoman who is organizing support for the foreign-born population.

“I think we have taken excellent steps so far,” Brown said. “I recognize that calling ourselves a sanctuary city is an important step.”

Brown understands the political importance of assigning the sanctuary city label to Columbus, and supports the council’s public hearing process to name the city as such. However, she said it’s not just about the label, but what the city does to live up to the label. To those ends, Brown began a legal-defense fund for immigrants, which is still in the nascent stages of gathering funding from non-governmental organizations and allocating resources from within the city’s budget. The goal of the fund, according to Brown, is to utilize the legal infrastructure in the city and bolster resources that are already there.

Brown’s initiative intersects with one of the biggest obstacles of naming any city a sanctuary city — political backlash. Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel supports a bill that would ban sanctuary cities in Ohio and hold local elected officials accountable for crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, the Plain Dealer reported. Mandel’s opposition to the sanctuary city label comes after President Donald Trump signed an executive order which would withhold federal money from “sanctuary jurisdictions,” as designated by the secretary of Homeland Security. Both Mandel’s opposition and Trump’s executive order reside in murky legal ground, as the term “sanctuary city” has no set definition, thereby making it difficult to enforce legislation around it.

“I actually think the White House, despite their threats, stands on shaky, if not unconstitutional legal grounds,” Brown said.

About $125 million in federal funding is at risk if Columbus decides to fly the sanctuary city banner, according to a 2015 auditor’s report. Included in that number is a $40 million Smart Cities grant from the Department of Transportation, the Columbus Dispatch reported.

While state and federal backlash for Columbus’ actions is tenuous and vague, there have been palpable effects for Trump’s actions in the city’s immigrant communities.

“(Trump) wants to rally around that fear, and unfortunately, he’s been successful because people are really scared,” Inna Simakovsky, an immigration lawyer with Simakovsky Law in Columbus, said. “There’s a huge, huge community effort to come together and do something.”

This culture of fear, she said, has coerced immigrants into being less visible in their communities. Simakovsky, herself a refugee from from the former USSR, said her attention has been divided between her law practice and community education efforts, which she said is intended to quell some of the fear instilled in the immigrant population.

“My focus has really been on education,” Simakovsky said. “Educating the community on relief, educating the community on what to do. The education part has been very time consuming, and that’s a good thing.”

One of the largest immigrant populations in Columbus is the Somali community, which has about 55,000 Somalis living in Central Ohio, according to the Somali Community Association of Ohio. Hassan Omar, president of the association, said the mayor has stood with him and tried his best to lend them support, but he doesn’t see enough from the city. Omar said his community needs social support in public schools, especially for refugee students who may not have had access to education previously.

The Columbus community has been instrumental in helping to foster an air of inclusion and safety for the city’s immigrants, Simakovsky said. She said it’s proving to be very necessary as efforts to resist Trump’s policies and rhetoric increase.

“I think it’s just going to get more organized and more mobilized,” she said. “We’re just getting started.”


Global Mall Houses somali businesses

Somali community finds opportunity in central ohio

Senior Reporter

Global Mall in Columbus, Ohio, is an unassuming storefront — plain and white with blocky red letters across the front proclaiming the name of the place and not much else. Nearby, there’s a store that sells waterbeds (n’ stuff) and a huge parking lot — the kind common under the bleak winter skies of Ohio around this time of year, reflecting the gray of the sky back in its concrete.

Inside, though, the gray dissipates. The walls are orange and warm and hung with hand-drawn pictures from children. The stalls are filled with fabric, patterned and sequined, lining the walls with a colorful patchwork.

“We kind of help each other, if something happened to somebody — it’s (a) closed community, I mean I’m not here, but I feel like we are a closed community, yeah,” said Amina Hussein, the sister of one of the shopkeepers in the Mall.

Her 3-year-old son, Salman, runs around carrying a snack. She glances at the walls, lined with scarves and dresses, fabric for clothing and hijabs.

“It’s very important, especially for me and my family. Me — I’m tall, and a lot of cultures don’t fit don’t fit me in other stores, so they bring the clothes here and they fit me, so it’s basically our cultural clothes,” Hussein said.

She has lived in Columbus for four years, and said she liked the area — she’s had no problems with discrimination.

“Our business is for everybody, not just the Somali community,” Nuro Wardhere, her sister, said. “It is really important (the business) because we want to loan to other cultures. We live together, we work together, so we need to know each other.”

Columbus, in fact, is home to the second largest Somali community in the United States, with around 55,000 members — second only to Minnesota, with 75,000 — and, according to the Somali Association of Ohio, these immigrants have opened over 600 businesses in the area.

“This culture, we are really ... when I was 5 years old, my father used to have a shop. Also, we used to have a plantation — banana plantation, back in Somalia, and then we were — we know how to make the business. So when we came over here, there were a lot of people who have the skills,” said Hassan Omar, president of the Somali Community Association of Ohio.

President of the Somali Community Association of Ohio Hassan Omar poses for a photo in Columbus on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017. // Zac Popik

Omar first came to America in 1990 and Columbus in 1998.

“So you have people who are Ph.Ds, master's, Bachelor of Arts, all came,” Omar said. “The whole government came, and then the people knew that they have the skills, and then people were starting to put together whether they could get, like, most of the business owned by Somalis.”

According to the Somali Community Association of Ohio, around 70 percent of Somali immigrants speak English well enough to obtain a local job.

“The goal is to help the community become self-sufficient. We open English as a second language first because the communication is key,” Omar said. “So we try to help be able to understand the language, the country they live with. To get a job, to help the kids, to go shopping, to drive, to live with other people.”

Still, the culture in America is much different than Somalia — the civil war in the country has raged on since the late ’90s. Omar said that the culture emphasizes a collective sense of business responsibility.

“It’s not one single person’s business, it’s like a group of people. So they created family businesses. For example, I have six brothers here in town, and two sisters. And we have nephews and nieces. ... Whatever we get we put together. Each person come(s) up with $2,000. And we save. And the next year, we’re going to save. And the next year, we’re going to save. So within four or five years, we’re going to get $50,000, $70,000. Then you can open the business.”

Places like Global Mall are full of these business owners — some who come straight from Somalia, and some who feel more removed from the immediacy of parts of the community — all housed under a collective roof. People converse in native dialects in the halls, and traditional garb brushes the floors.

“I speak the language, but you know, you’re not authentic enough,” said Abdulrahman Abdi, a grocery store shopkeeper. “This is the vibe I get from the majority, because I wasn’t born in Somalia. I mean, I work in a Somalian store, which is like, the majority, it’s like Somalian-Somalian, you know? And I’m like, ‘hey.’”

Still, most members of the community insist there is not great resistance against Somali businesses from Columbus natives — including Omar, who, in the Somali Community Association office, pulls out a great stack of colorful cards and envelopes with notes voicing their support for the community.

“People are talking about (Trump) and there’s fear. But we don’t see any very serious issues ... I get only two or three letters (that) say ‘you are bad guys.’ But these are the support letters I get from Americans, could you imagine,” Omar said. “We get all of these letters saying ‘thank you, you are here, you belong here, nobody can bother you.’ That’s the kind of American that we live with.”

This support, however, does not always spell success for the businesses from outside of the community — as experienced by Habibo Kahdedege, a fabric store owner in the mall who has lived in Ohio for 11 years.

“The Somali shops, they’re selling the community Somali things. Look at the dress. (It’s) Somali dress — or Islamic dress — we’re selling,” Kahdedege said. “But (in) the community, business is slow; not good. This is, you look and no customer come in. Like ... one person, two person, three person, not too much.”

Still, the bond in the community becomes clear the longer one sits near the shops or in the cafe, watching mothers and their children, men with coffee conversing closely, families sitting together at tables.

“We have a lot of elderly people that have trouble when they’re going to the court or doctor, they don’t speak English, so we help them,” said Rooble Melvin. He sits near the barbershop in a sharp blue suit reading through his Twitter feed.

Rooble Melvin, a worker for a Democratic State Representative, poses for a portrait on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017. // Zac Popik

Melvin said he worked for a Democratic State Representative — as well as a liaison for older members of the community, not as immersed in the changing cultural landscape as he.

“These people only show up, the Democrats, when they need Somali votes. And why we lost to the orange faced guy — they were not doing enough outreach, reaching out to people,” Melvin said.

News about Trump blared on the radio overhead.

“They don’t like him (Trump), but they still respect him. In the Somali culture, respect is big. Like if an older person comes when I’m sitting, I have to get up. So they have respect ... no matter what, because they say the office he’s holding deserves respect,” Melvin said.

He said that the cultural barrier is one reason he feels that the population is not as involved.

“There’s a big cultural barrier ... most of the Somali people only vote on presidential. They don’t vote on midterm elections,” Melvin said. “They don’t vote on early elections ... because they don’t know ... and they’re not informed voters.”

Other young men lean against the walls around the barbershop opposite the throngs of older men gathered by the cafe.

“My father came here like 15 years (ago), like late ’90s, so when he came here at that time our country was in war. When he came here, the culture was different, the environment was different, people was different. Everything was different, so he was trying to get used to (the) new environment,” said Haybe Mohammed as he waits for the barber to return after Friday prayers.

His street clothes, basketball pants and a black-and-white American flag shirt, sharply contrast with the traditional garb of passing older men.

“When we came here, our English was good. So this was good for me. Interacting with people was easy for me because I know the English, and I have been to different cultures,” he said.

Mohammed, who said he often visits the barbershop in Global Mall, had lived in Columbus for three years and was working on investments with a friend.

“Usually, Somali community here, they have their own places where they meet up, share ideas, stuff like that. They usually support each other, you know. Those who are in need, they do, you know, donation stuff, collection to help them. So that’s good for the community,” Mohammed said.

Haybe Mohammed waits outside to get his hair cut at the Warya Barber Shop located in the Global Mall on Friday Feb. 24, 2017. // Eslah Attar

The cultural emphasis on community and support persists — but the generational gap is obvious.

“We know that our kids have a different culture than we are — individual. ‘Me, me, me,’ America it’s ‘me.’ But we don’t say ‘me,’ we say ‘we.’ So two different things,” Omar said.

Families often live together, even past adulthood.

“I have a brother ... one of his daughters is a doctor. One is a social worker. One of them’s a midwife ... I think they’re all skilled people. And guess what, they still live together in the same house. Same, you know, under one roof. And whatever they get, they put together,” Omar said. “This is the culture. Collective effort. We don’t believe in individualistic- we believe individual cannot sustain in our culture.”

Mohammed, though, said he wanted to move past Columbus — to expand his opportunities.

“I’m gaining more knowledge in the business world, and also I’m gaining how you can become successful in the world of business,” Mohammed said. “I’m in the early stages of apprenticeship, so I want to first lay my foundation here. Then, when I become successful, I can move out and go to New York ... and other parts of the world.”

The opportunities, Mohammed said, are much greater in America.

Omar agreed and said members of the community want to work with Americans — match them hand-for-hand.

“We have more than that,” Omar said. “That’s what you see. They have real estates, they have insurances, they have tracking businesses ... and transportation businesses, they have their own daycares. They have more than 40, 50 groceries, and I think that gradually they will meld to the community.”

They consider themselves Americans. Omar said he is here now. He doesn’t have plans to go back because the opportunity is greater in Columbus.

“There’s a place I know that’s like paradise ... people are less violent, people are hardworking, they have good hospitality, they will never treat you different ... If you go in Somalia ... I never, ever hear ‘he’s white’ or ‘he’s black’ or ‘He’s a Christian.’ You will never hear that word. People live together, they treat you as a human being. Respect you. That’s all.”

KentWired Special projects team

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Director of Special Projects / Senior Editor: Karl Schneider

Design Director / Web Developer: Ray Padilla

Writers: Cameron Gorman and Andrew Keiper

Photographers: Eslah Attar and Zac Popik