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Two Somali women's organizations now open, offering nearly identical services

Somali Women's Connection Center volunteer Hamdi Auled, left, and director Lul Yusuf work at the center in downtown Willmar. Tribune photo by Eric Ludy

On the second floor of an old brick building in downtown Willmar, the Somali Women's Connection Center is open for business.

From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week, Muslim women can go there to exercise in private, get help from a group of volunteers in finding a job or just work on improving their English.

Downstairs, in the same building, they can do the same thing during the same times at the similarly titled Somali Women Organization.

It's confusing to many people, said Fatima Jason, who volunteers at the Somali Women's Connection Center, and it brings up a word not often associated with nonprofits: competition.

"We're two organizations that have the same goals, and we'll have to compete for the same funds," said Jason.

Both groups claim they were the first to initiate the idea of a center catered to Somali women. The Somali Women's Connection Center's organizers point to the fact that their doors opened first. Their center opened in June and was featured in an article in the West Central Tribune.

Organizers of the Somali Women Organization, though, said they had been developing a detailed plan of operation for over two years. Their opening may have come a month later, they said, but they contend that they were undercut by an upstart with little regard for their previous efforts.

When it comes to finding sources of funding, though, which came first probably won't matter, said Stacey Roberts, the executive director of the United Way of West Central Minnesota. She said that when agencies like the United Way choose programs to fund, they are looking for one that will show a proven ability to get results.

"We usually don't fund two programs that are doing the same thing," she said.

Maqsuud Ali Adeys, a 2006 Willmar Senior High School graduate and director of the Somali Women Organization, said that with this competition for funding, one organization would likely emerge with more legitimacy than the other.

"Right now, it's just talk, talk, talk," she said. "We're both new, so people don't know who's up to do the work."

But judging by the progress both centers have made already, they both plan to stick around.

Lul Yusuf, director of the Somali Women's Connection Center, said the organization has seen a lot of community support in the weeks since its formation. What were bare walls at the office are now covered in fresh coats of light blue and orange paint. People have brought in chairs, rugs and a treadmill. A local woman has promised a sewing machine.

The Somali Women Organization is moving along swiftly as well since its opening last month. It now has Internet access and letters on the window announce the organization's name and phone number. It also has something that Yusuf's organization doesn't: the backing of an established organizing apparatus.

That would be the Coalition of African Community Services and its executive director, Abdi Duh. He has gotten behind the Somali Women Organization, assisting it with attaining nonprofit status and other legal and financial issues.

Duh says he is now working to get the two organizations to work together.

"The way it is now is unacceptable," he said. "Working together is the best way to exist in America."

Cawo Abdi, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota who has studied East African migrant communities in the Twin Cities, said she has never seen a case like this before in the Somali community.

"There is a large Somali community in the Twin Cities, and I've never seen two services of the same kind in the same building," she said.

Asked if clan politics brought over from Somalia could be a factor in the conflict with the women's organizations in Willmar, Abdi said that was unlikely. Somali community leaders know that there are limited resources available for their programs, she said, so they have learned to work together despite their differences.

"Otherwise, there would be 20, 30 different centers. It wouldn't make any sense," she said.