We were lucky to catch up with Said Abiyow recently and have shared our conversation below.
Said, appreciate you joining us today. One of the most important things small businesses can do, in our view, is to serve underserved communities that are ignored by giant corporations who often are just creating mass-market, one-size-fits-all solutions. Talk to us about how you serve an underserved community.
The Somali Bantu Association of America (SBAOA) was founded in 2011 to serve Somali Bantu and other similarly underserved and disadvantaged refugees resettling in the United States. Our flagship program Women Entrepreneurs: Developing Refugee Economic Advancement through Microenterprise (WE DREAM) is rooted in the struggles my mother faced when we both arrived in the US after spending 15 years in Kenyan refugee camps. With no English language skills, and complete sense of alienation from the daily life in the US, my mother soon developed severe symptoms of PTSD, and depression. It is no surprise that we were completely overwhelmed with the thoughts of us attempting to find employment or education that would cross the language and cultural barriers.
While working with organizations serving refugees in Texas, I’d seen how family child care microenterprises could help transform lives of refugee women and their families. With that inspiration, and my hope of making resettlement for women like my mother a more secure journey, WE DREAM was born. After six years, this program has helped 132 refugee women start their own family child care microenterprises, and over 100 women are waitlisted for the program.
With these challenges of underserved refugee communities in mind, the SBAOA has spent the last 11 years tailoring services to benefit adults, families, and youth alike. We offer services that assist the economic and educational empowerment of highly marginalized and underserved refugee communities. Our programs include ESL classes, citizenship support, employment, technical assistance, emergency food aid, housing, health and sanitation, and parent and youth services. All of these programs are offered with wrap-around services including translation support in over 80 languages, transportation in the organization van, and support accessing critical government services such as CalFresh and Medi-Cal.
As someone who shares lived experiences with the refugee community of City Heights, I deeply understood the barriers, struggles, and issues the community faced. Over 40% of San Diego’s refugee population lives in the neighborhood. The overwhelmingly low-income and multicultural residents face technological isolation and internet inequality, as well as barriers to transportation, health care, and citizenship. Community members speak diverse regionalized languages that are not commonly translated, which leaves them linguistically isolated from employment, educational, health, and other vital services. Our program beneficiaries need linguistically and culturally appropriate employment and education programs, and to ensure our programs remain relevant, they are informed through community feedback, and tailored to the needs of the community. We are also sensitive to the fact that many of our community members struggle with access to basic needs such as nutritious food and reliable transportation. And to make sure our beneficiaries have all the support they need to excel in life, we provide access to support services through all our programs.
Great, appreciate you sharing that with us. Before we ask you to share more of your insights, can you take a moment to introduce yourself and how you got to where you are today to our readers
My family and I are Somali Bantu, a tribe descended from Mozambicans and Tanzanians who were brought and enslaved in Somalia in the late 19th century. This historical status led to the Somali Bantu being discriminated against and persecuted for generations. My people were relegated to societally low-status jobs, restricted from accessing education, banned from learning Somali, and prohibited from intermarriage with individuals from other tribes. When the civil war broke out in the 1990s, the Somali Bantu were unable to forge alliances and we became victims of heinous acts of genocide.
My grandmother, mother, and I had to make a perilous journey to escape the civil war that ensued in Somali. Barely twenty, my mother, Khadija, watched as most of her family was shot and killed before escaping. Only my grandmother, mother, and I survived. Like many Somalis, we fled with nothing but their lives. Taking turns carrying me, my grandmother and mother walked without proper food or hydration for nearly a week-and-a-half until we reached the nearest refugee camp in Kenya. Arriving at the refugee camp on the verge of death, we all received medical attention just in time.
Despite ongoing discrimination I faced as a Somali Bantu in the refugee camp, I was able to excel academically, eventually being able to attend a local Kenyan university. I came to the US with my mother in 2005 as a 20-year-old Somali refugee. As is true for most Somalian refugees fleeing persecution, my mother and I spent 15 years in Kenyan refugee camps with little access to sanitation, medical care, or food.
While we were still in Kenya, and moved by how much people like me had to suffer to find a way to a safer life, I helped the Joint Volunteer Agency, that worked for refugees in the Kakuma Refugee Camp. I helped other refugees in the camps to complete their paperwork for resettlement.
I knew then that this was to be the course of my life. I dedicated myself to continue helping refugees once we arrived in the US. I worked with refugee serving organizations in Texas for two years, before moving to San Diego in 2006.
It was in 2011 that I established the SBAOA. The SBAOA offers a holistic suite of services that addresses the community’s basic needs such as access to food, transportation, and translation; and designs programs around identified needs. The overarching goal of all our programs is creating healthier families and communities, and empowering refugees to become economically self-reliant.
Through our work, and the various programs we design and implement, our aim is to help the refugee community come to the forefront of economic growth in the US. The problems we aim to solve are the lack of affordable, and linguistically and culturally relevant services that would allow this community to excel in their lives. Building healthier communities and families starts with access to basic needs and fundamental resources, and fostering economic stability. If those who have been historically marginalized remain cut-off from access to resources, they will continue to be victims of systemic inequality. These are the problems we aim to solve through our work.
Today, I’m proud to say we are an organization where 90% of staff, leadership, and Board of Directors arrived as refugees or immigrants to the US. I am proud of the fact in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020 we served over 10,000 individuals, double the beneficiaries served in 2019. We are proud of the support of are innumerable volunteers and supporters who stand by us through tough times. And mostly, we are proud that most of those who graduate from our programs always come back to give back to the programs to support new program beneficiaries.
Our programs are largely clubbed into three focus areas – employment and finances for adults, youth, and food and housing security. Employment-focused programs help refugees break systemic barriers to economic freedom, allowing low-income people to become independent and provide for themselves and their families. Through these programs we provide general and topic-specific technical assistance to refugees for starting microenterprises; learn how to save for assets such as homes, businesses, vehicles for educational and employment purposes, professional certifications, and education. Our finance-focused program connects English Language Learners with education, training, work experience, and support services needed to find employment in the in-demand industries of hospitality, healthcare, and child care with sustainable wages.
Our youth programs have been tailored along the way keeping in mind the challenges they and their families face. We work with at-risk youth to help them graduate, complete college applications, enroll in college, and find employment. As well, we annually invite 40 youth to pursue their dreams through experiential learning, workshops, visits to pertinent locations (e.g. the Capital building, art museums, universities), and meetings with professionals. We are also currently working with elementary, middle, and high school-aged children and their families to ensure that these most vulnerable students are able to navigate the changing academic landscape in 2021. During the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, multiple children per family were having to share a single device with poor internet access to fulfill their academic requirements. We have supported internet expenses for some families and lent out the organization’s ChromeBooks to families in need. Additionally, we conduct regular anti-drug and anti-gang workshops with youth, and educate them on online safety.
We also offer wraparound services to ensure barriers to basic needs do not hinder their program participation. Our wraparound services include, translation services in over 80 languages, a food pantry that provides critical emergency nutritional assistance to vulnerable families and individuals, and an organization van to ensure reliable transportation. Our food pantry has been in place since 2016. Through this food pantry, nearly 300 refugee and immigrant households have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, and milk each week. A majority of these households have an average of eight members.
We also provide services that increase post-resettlement stability for refugees by providing, English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, and group appointments to Government agencies to apply for assistance, on-site social services, and fostering new and ongoing relationships with other local organizations that service refugees.
We’d love to hear a story of resilience from your journey.
My resilience was defined when the civil war broke out in Somalia. As a child, I watched as my nine siblings were murdered. A week later my mother and I escaped the gruesome reality of Somalia and found ourselves in the jungles leading to Kenya. Others were escaping from that route and the chatter in the air was that Kenya was friendly and peaceful, even to Somali Bantu.
It took us 15 days to cross the jungles. With no food or water, we were carried by hope alone that we were heading towards a better life. My remaining family and I arrived at the Kenyan border close to death.
The next 15 years were spent in the camps. As I grew up in the camps, I became filled with determination to help my mother and myself, and others in the camps. In 1999, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) opened the procedures for repatriation and, in 2000, we arrived in the US. The unknown that lay before us only strengthened my resilience.
As I watched my mother suffer with PTSD and depression, I knew that she needed community and that she was not the only one. For over a decade, we have remained steadfast in that commitment to help all those like myself, my mother. All these years later, we are not just alright; we have made possible what was unthinkable to that 5-year-old child who fled a civil war with his mother.
Can you talk to us about how your funded your business?
In 2011, when I wanted to initiate the first batch of WE DREAM, I approached people I knew and shared my idea with them. I contacted people I had met or worked with during the initial years in the US. Feeling inspired with what WE DREAM could achieve, several individuals came forward to donate money towards the cause. Patricia Moore and Garrett Cullen, SBAOA’s co-founders not only offered to contribute towards the program but also spread the word among their networks to raise money. Others who had shared struggled with me in the refugee camps also felt inspired and came forward to help the community. Through word of mouth, we collected $10,000 and that’s how the SBAOA started its first program.
- Website: http://sbaoa.org/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/s_baoa/?hl=en
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SBAOA-167665106773224/
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ifrah-sbaoa-1074061a6/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/sbaoa