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Community Integration Center opens in downtown Willmar

Erica Dischino / Tribune The newly opened Community Integration Center is located on Fifth Street Southwest in downtown Willmar. Founded by a group of immigrants from east Africa, the center is open to all members of the community in an effort to overcome cultural, economic and health barriers. 1 / 4
Erica Dischino / Tribune Both English and Somali language classes are offered at the recently opened Community Integration Center in downtown Willmar. The nonprofit organization also provides resources for new community members and offers support. 2 / 4
Erica Dischino / Tribune Volunteer Hamdi Kosar prepares both Somali and English books in a classroom at the recently opened Community Integration Center in downtown Willmar, where both languages will be taught. Kosar said she has never taught before. “It was important for me to share my knowledge so (newcomers) can feel more at home here,” she said. “Someone did it for me so I want to do for them.” 3 / 4
Erica Dischino / Tribune Volunteer Hamdi Kosar, from left, founders Abdirahman Ahmed, Omar Jama, and Ahmedfowzi Haji Ismail stand in the recently opened Community Integration Center, a non-profit organization that provides education and engagement opportunities for community members in an effort to overcome cultural, economic and health barriers.4 / 4

WILLMAR — A group of immigrants from east Africa has formed a nonprofit organization to help members of the Willmar community learn more about each other.

The Community Integration Center, located at 201 Fifth St. S.W. in downtown Willmar, is open to everyone, seven days a week.

The center will act as a welcome center for people who have just moved to Willmar. Its founders hope they can help break down some cultural barriers, too. The services offered there will be free.

In addition to offering help with literacy, the center will offer English classes for Somali speakers, and, possibly a first for Willmar, Somali classes for English speakers. They will offer advice for newcomers and will help them understand the culture of their new home.

English classes are scheduled for weekends, to reach people who cannot get to other classes held during the week. Somali classes will be held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursdays.

Other plans include working with youth, offering them advice on healthy lifestyles, finding jobs and other things that may be unfamiliar to their newcomer parents. They have discussed the possibility of a 4-H chapter at the center.

The center started as the idea of two Willmar men, Abdirahman Ahmed and Ahmedfowzi Haji Ismail. Others joined them to found the center, which opened two weeks ago. Everyone involved works elsewhere and volunteers at the center.

So far, they said, the founding group has paid for the storefront office and furnishings on their own. They have applied for grants but have not heard yet whether they will be receiving any. They will accept donations.

The founders don't want to miss anyone who needs help, so the center is staffed from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. The storefront location has a reception area, an office, conference rooms and a large classroom.

Omar Jama, the health program director, said he will work with newcomers to help them prepare for cold weather and learn how to properly take medications. He has a number of young people ready to help newcomers.

"We are all paying it forward," Jama said. "There were people who helped us."

Hamdi Kosar, a volunteer with the organization, said a lot of people don't know where to turn for help. "If you have a problem, come to us," she said. "We can try to find a solution. ... We are open for everyone." Kosar is employed at United Community Action Partnership.

Ismail said the center will partner with other nonprofit groups, too. They have plans to start a Willmar Culture Week in the first week of July. That week includes the Somali and American independence celebrations.

The week will include cultural displays and training, so people in the town can learn about each other's cultures.

"One of the important things, some of the narratives aren't good," Ahmed said. "We hope to reduce tensions between parts of the community."

For more information, contact the center at 914-310-1864 or communityintegrationcentre@gmail.com. Its website is www.cicenter.org.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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