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Small office downtown provides a private space for Somali women to interact as one

An unidentified woman, left, and Mary Gutierrez from Willmar Shelter House answer questions Saturday at the Willmar Public Library during an informational meeting about the Somali Women's Connection Center. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- The office at 410 Becker Ave. would be nothing special for most. A picture of President Obama hanging on the wall provides its only decoration. A single desk covered in papers and four chairs are its only furnishings.

But for Ugbad Hash, the simple space is her one reason for staying in Willmar, and her only hope that next year brings new promise.

A refugee from the sectarian violence of Somalia, Hash came to west central Minnesota with her three children two years ago. She speaks no English, and her children don't fare much better with the language. They've been struggling in school, and she has grappled with her own inability to help them. After two frustrating and lonely years, she was ready to pack up and head to St. Cloud.

That was until Lul Yusuf rented this office downtown a month ago. She calls it the Somali Women's Connection Center, and along with three volunteers, she wants to make it a safe and private place for Somali women and their children to gather. Somali children, she said, will get help with homework and learn the songs and stories of their home country. Somali women would have a place to network, exercise in private without the burden of the hijab, and most importantly, have the ability to engage in much-needed social interaction.

"If you're alone, sitting at home just watching TV, you'll have stress, you know? If you have social, a lot of people to talk to, you'll be healthy," said Yusuf.

Yusuf works as an interpreter at nearby Rice Memorial Hospital. Many of the Somali women she sees there suffer the physical manifestations of stress and inactivity: high rates of diabetes, aching joints and high blood pressure.

"They have stress because they don't see each other," she said.

When the doors to the office opened last month, the pent-up demand for a space for Somali women to gather was apparent. People came in droves, she said, even though the space had virtually no furniture or decoration.

Those will come later, said Yusuf, when the center achieves nonprofit status and can receive a steady stream of funding from government grants.

To do that, she's been talking with Stacey Roberts, executive director of the United Way of West Central Minnesota.

Roberts said that she is working with Yusuf to get the fledgling organization a fiscal host, or another nonprofit organization that would be responsible for the center until it gets on its feet financially. That's necessary in order for the center to become a nonprofit organization under IRS rules, she said.

Roberts will meet with Yusuf on Thursday to discuss those next steps.

"We're very much so in preliminary stages," she said.

But Yusuf, along with colleagues Hamdi Auled and Amina Yabrow, are set in their respective positions in the Somali women's center.

Yusuf, who has worked in the past at a Somali refugee camp in Kenya, is the center's director, overseeing its operations. She would also help Somali women and any men who were interested with applying for jobs and applying for government programs. Yabrow, a newcomer of only 4 months to the United States, will be in charge of cultural enrichment activities and promoting an overall fun and inviting atmosphere. Auled is the resident physical therapist.

The Somali women's center would have a separate space where women could remove the hijab and exercise, said Auled. Not only would that be good for them physically, but it would also contribute to their mental well-being by providing them with a natural stress reliever.

"Sometimes I have stress in my life, because I have five kids," said Auled. "But with one or two days a week for exercise, it does off with the stress."

Yabrow would like to use the center to imbue Somali music and stories in a new generation of Somali children growing up in the United States. As a relative newcomer to the United States, Yabrow would be perfect for the job, Yusuf said.

Finding committed volunteers like Yabrow and Auled has been her number one priority in getting the center on its feet, said Yusuf. Already, having them has been a contributing factor to the level of interest in the space among Somali women.

"That's why they keep coming yesterday, the day before yesterday. But still we need furniture, funds to pay for rent."

"That's number two," she said.