Somali women carve their own niche in Boston

Somali women empower themselves by opening successful businesses in the US.

Somalia giving back to the community
Somali women in the US have worked hard to break stereotypes and cultural norms by working to support their families and contribute to their communities, highlighting the importance of the role of women in society [EPA]

Deeqo Jibril is always on the go. Whether she is tending to her four children or teaching breast cancer awareness classes to women in her community, the Somali-born community organiser is always up for a new challenge.

Recently, she gave up her job as a social worker to focus full time on the Boston-based Somali Community & Cultural Association, a nonprofit Jibril founded a year ago to support Somali-American women.

The organisation is located inside a 3,000-square-foot retail building in Dudley Square, the heart of Boston’s African American community. Jibril is also a building co-landlord and currently subleases space for six businesses.

“Most of my tenants are from Africa and the West Indies,” Jibril said. “I started subleasing the building two years ago so other entrepreneurs could have a chance at the American dream.”

Statistically, Somalis have struggled more than nearly any other immigrant group in the United States. The American Community Survey estimated just over 100,000 Somalis lived in the US in 2009, with almost 30,000 living in Minnesota, although other sources suggest 60,000.

According to the US Census Bureau, the median household income for Somalis is among the lowest, with 51 per cent living in poverty. But that could be changing.

Jibril’s enterprise is not only an example of the evolving multicultural dynamic within the US workplace, but also the role of women. According to Joyce Stanley, head of the Dudley Square Main Streets Program, a city initiative to support business development in the community, there are nine businesses that were started up by African women in the area, many of them in the last four years alone.

“In the immigrant community, anyone who comes here to America is motivated to achieve,” Stanley said. “Somalis are one of the fastest growing immigrant communities in Boston, but it is simply amazing to see the Somali women take charge.”

Like many Somalis in Boston, Jibril immigrated with her mother and four siblings in 1991 to escape the civil war in Mogadishu. Entrepreneurship runs in Jibril’s blood, as her mother, Lul Isak, is also an entrepreneur who sells women’s scarves from a cart in her daughter’s building.

Down the street is Mabruuk Fashions, a store specialising in traditional Islamic apparel for women, which was started up by Somali entrepreneur Sapia Gelle in 2007. Gelle is out of the country for several weeks, so her daughter Amenia Wasin is currently managing the store.

“My mother was always a businesswoman at heart even before she came here,” Wasin said. “It’s a special thing to see all these women running businesses here.”

Dudley Square has been a revolving door of culturally diverse entrepreneurship for over a century. Up until the 1940s, the community was supported by businesses run by Jewish, Irish and Eastern European immigrants. The square evolved after World War II, when an influx of African Americans migrated there from the South, escaping harsh Jim Crow laws.

Most of them were Pullman Porters, who not only helped modernise the country’s railroad system, but also contributed to the rise of the black middle class. Many of these businessmen were influenced by Marcus Garvey’s call for black economic self-reliance.

Today, there are abandoned buildings reminiscent of Dudley Square’s glory days of African American entrepreneurship, ranging from pharmacies, barbershops and restaurants. Beginning in the 1990s, some of those buildings were taken over by a new wave of entrepreneurs from South Korea, Jamaica and Nigeria.

For many of the Somali women, owning their own businesses here gives them financial independence, which is something they didn’t have in their home countries. In Somalia, men are generally the breadwinners in their traditionally Muslim households, while their wives kept house and took care of the children.

However, once these families come to the United States, the roles change, and the women are setting up shop and bringing home paychecks.

Saido Farah moved to Boston from Somalia in 1996 and started Roots Halal Meat Market in the neighbouring community of Jamaica Plain in 2004. Farah, who is five months pregnant, runs the store seven days a week with the support of her husband and one of her 10 children. Farah says it can be hard at times, but she does good business with her predominately Muslim clientèle. She also believes in giving back to her community.

While her husband is very supportive of her venture, she said many of her male customers are not sure how to take her.

“They are not used to seeing women in positions of power,” Farah said. “However, the men are generally supportive of me.”

Back in Dudley Square, Ismahar Warfa helps run the Indian Ocean Grocery and Halal Meat with her husband. She says that no matter whether a man or a woman is running the store, in this economy, “work is work”, and everyone chips in to support the business.

The male businessmen in Jibril’s building are supportive of her work.

“I think it’s healthy to have business women since some of the best world leaders are women, like Hillary Clinton, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi,” said Josiah Faeduwer, the Sierra Leonean manager of Bintimani Restaurant located in the building. “Deeqo is a powerful woman who has the character to bring people together.”

Unfortunately, Jibril says she is not getting that same support for her ventures from her husband, who she is currently divorcing. Despite the tragedy of a marriage breakup, Jibril says she has more freedom now to concentrate on her nonprofit’s work, such as providing English language training and developing business skills for other Somali women.

In fact, she will be honoured for her work in the community May 18 by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women as an “Unsung Hero”.

“It is an honour to serve my community,” Jibril said. “Giving back and empowering other women only makes our community stronger.”

A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.

Source: IPS