In the last decade, the Twin Cities has become the defacto “capital” of the Somali community in North America. Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, nearly all of which are located in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. There are 70,000 immigrants from Somalia living in the state, and 20,000 of these people arrive with a disability. These Somalis have come either directly from refugee camps, or as secondary migrants from other countries and U.S. cities, drawn here by the urban job market and the refugee service agencies.
The Disabled Immigrants Association (DIA) was formed by immigrants from Somalia in 2003. The voluntary, human services organization is led by immigrants with disabilities who are striving to help other immigrants with disabilities (from all countries) adjust to their new opportunities in the United States. DIA supports immigrants and their careers by providing a multitude of services, information and advocacy on key issues. The immigrants DIA serves which arrive in this country burdened with a variety of physical and/or mental disabilities. These disabilities often cause the immigrants to have low self-esteem that cripples their ability to succeed in their new homeland. DIA helps by teaching them how to move away from low self-esteem and dependence towards self sufficiency and increased self-confidence.
Somali refugees have been settling in the Twin Cities since Somalia’s civil war erupted in 1991. In the aftermath of the civil war, there has been no central government, which means there are no functional institutions to provide assistance. There has been no organized police, no education, little healthcare, a lack of clean water and many other major problems. These governmental shortcomings have both led to or exacerbated people’s disabilities.
Many Somalis have disabilities that are a result of either a birth defect or the civil war. Some people have physical disabilities, including amputees, those born without limbs, the blind, and the deaf. Others have cognitive disabilities, including treatable emotional ailments such as depression and culture shock. Furthermore, there are many war disabilities that are not the result of military service. These disabilities occur from being in a refugee camp or from just being an innocent bystander in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
When the need for more services in the Twin Cities increased, DIA responded by opening an office in Minneapolis in 2003. The organization acts as a resource center. It also manages a range of services to support its mission. DIA, which recently received its 501(c) 3 status, is looking for help from other more experienced non-profit organizations.
The situation in Somalia has been dire for some years now. Hundreds of thousands of people in southern Somalia are at risk of starvation due to drought and economic turmoil. Only one-fifth of children aged 6 to 13 are in school, with even fewer attending secondary school. The region suffers from a high incidence of malaria, tuberculosis, and H.I.V. virus. Many people do not understand the nature of these diseases and their transmission. Lastly, the region’s main form of income, its livestock trade, has been decimated by the outbreak of two deadly viruses (Rift Valley Fever Virus and the Rinderpest Virus) and the subsequent bans placed on their livestock by the region’s trading partners. Many Somalis lack the knowledge and the equipment to take the necessary steps to overcome the bans, regulate the trade in livestock and be able to compete in the marketplace. In light of the disease, lack of educational opportunity, and economic turmoil, many of the disabled Somali immigrants have never had the resources or opportunity to seek help with their disabilities.
These immigrants arrive in this country seeking a new life while trying to deal with physical and/or cognitive disabilities. These disabilities often cause these immigrants to have low self-esteem and cripple their ability to succeed in their new homeland.
The Disabled Immigrant Association can be contacted at 612-824-7075, or through email at DI_ASSO@yahoo.com