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Willmar businessman honored as Unsung Hero

WILLMAR -- A Willmar businessman is one of four people in Minnesota to receive the 2017 Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Award. Abdirizak "Zack" Mahboub, 57, of Willmar, a native of Somalia, was named for the honor by the Minnesota Council of...

Linda Vanderwerf / Tribune Willmar businessman Abdirizak "Zack" Mahboub talks in his Midtown Plaza office about receiving the Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Award from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Mahboub has lived in Willmar since 2011.
Linda Vanderwerf / Tribune Willmar businessman Abdirizak "Zack" Mahboub talks in his Midtown Plaza office about receiving the Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Award from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Mahboub has lived in Willmar since 2011.
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WILLMAR - A Willmar businessman is one of four people in Minnesota to receive the 2017 Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Award.

Abdirizak "Zack" Mahboub, 57, of Willmar, a native of Somalia, was named for the honor by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and the McKnight Foundation.

Mahboub and his wife Sahra Gure own and operate West Central Interpreting Services and New Minnesotan Realty.

They are remodeling a building in downtown Willmar with the intention of renting space to a variety of small businesses. The former Erickson Furniture building is now called Midtown Plaza and is expected to open later this fall.

Mahboub said Monday that three people nominated him for the award - State Rep. Dave Baker, a local businessman; Diana Anderson, director of the Southwest Initiative Foundation; and Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

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"Amazing" was Mahboub's reaction to the award.

"Since I moved here in 2011, I've tried my best to be a bridge between the minority and the mainstream communities," he said.

Over the time he's lived in Willmar, he said, he's tried to help newcomers from East Africa adjust to life in America and to explain the newcomers' culture to people in what he calls the mainstream culture.

"Internally, we suffer, as immigrants, with our own baggage," he said. Many Africans arrive after having dealt with clan warfare in Somalia's civil war and having spent many months in refugee camps.

Through their interpreting business, Mahboub and Gure also speak on cultural competency in the community to help different groups learn about each other.

The African immigrants and refugees here are not different from immigrants who have come to the country in previous generations, he said.

He lived for a time on the East Coast, he said, and he learned of the difficulties Irish, Italians, Greeks and other nationalities had adjusting to the cities, and the problems Americans had adjusting to them. "Today, they are as American as anybody else."

Africans and other newcomers have found Willmar to be a generally accepting community, he said.

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A change in the political climate has brought a few more challenges, he added. He's been yelled at on the street a couple of times, for example.

Mahboub said he often explains that the east Africans here are "no different from any other immigrant" and that they make significant contributions to the local economy.

Immigrants' children are Americans, he said. "They don't know any other home."

Mahboub said he has tried to work to expand opportunities for ethnic businesses along with increasing cultural understanding. He expects Midtown Plaza to house a variety of ethnic and mainstream businesses as well as offer some cultural activities.

Mahboub has lived in the United States since he came here to start college in 1981. He is a mechanical engineer and has a master's degree in public affairs from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He currently serves as secretary of the Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission.

"I am proud to be an American citizen, and I have committed my life to show Americans can always do better," he said.

Mahboub worked for the Minneapolis-based African Development Commission when he and his family moved to Willmar. About a year later, he resigned and they started their own business.

Other 2017 recipients are Angela Edwards of Minneapolis, founder of the nonprofit Education Explosion; Jon Vang of St. Paul, a leader in several social justice organizations; and Millicent Simenson of Bemidji, an Anishinaabe birth worker and co-founder of the nonprofit Mewinzha Ondaadiziike Wiigaming addressing birth disparities in her community.

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Honorees receive a $10,000 cash prize, and they are being honored at a private luncheon in Minneapolis today. They will also be recognized at the 2017 Minnesota Council of Nonprofits annual conference Oct. 12 in St. Paul.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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