Disturbance Shows Needs For Somali Housing

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Two Somali-Americans embrace during a cultural ceremony in Columbus.(Photo: Somali Culture Online Resource Center)
Two Somali-Americans embrace during a cultural ceremony in Columbus.(Photo: Somali Culture Online Resource Center)

Columbus has one of the nation’s largest populations of Somali immigrants, with about 50,000 making their home in Central Ohio.

But it can be tough for many to find affordable housing.

That’s why hundreds lined up outside a North Columbus church last weekend in hopes of getting a shot at a government-subsidized apartment.

I went there just to fill out an application, not to go to the E.R. and get pepper sprayed. It was very embarrassing.

Shrkuri Mohadem is a young mother who came to the U.S. from Somalia five years ago. She was outside the Sunbury Road church when the line reportedly got out of control and police were called. She was among those pepper-sprayed, but it was worse for her friend Ifrah Farah. She came to the U.S. from Somalia just four months ago and doesn’t speak English.

“I couldn’t see anything. I was trying to run, I didn’t know where to go or ask for help since I don’t speak English. The ambulance came, and I went to go to the ambulance so they could wash my eyes, but I couldn’t go there because I couldn’t talk to them,” Farah says through in interpreter.

She called it a wake-up call and a shock on a day she was hoping to take steps toward getting her first apartment.

Hassan Omar runs the Somali Community Association of Ohio, just around the corner from where Farah and others had their run-in with police. He calls the Saturday incident unfortunate and symptomatic of the larger housing problem.

He says cheap, abundant housing was a major reason thousands of Somalis flocked to Columbus in the 1990s. But growth has outpaced construction, and he says apartments that are available are often a poor fit.

Most of the Somali community, families are larger than ordinary American families. You’ll see some families that consist of eight or nine, and (apartment owners) decided the apartments are two bedrooms or three bedrooms.

The lack of cheap housing rests at least partially with the private sector, but Omar wants more housing assistance from the city, county, and state.

“We don’t want to say ‘We’re Somali’ and stay separate. We’re American and we are here. We are citizens and would like to assimilate, but we need outside support. We need resources to continue to increase the services, which are a necessity for the community to obtain more self-sufficiency.”

By resources, Omar means subsidized housing, English language programs, job training, and help for at-risk youth, all programs that have been victims of recent budget cuts.

The Columbus Community Relations Commission works with local non-profits that offer interpreters, employment services, and other assistance. WOSU asked for more details about programs and funding cuts, but the city did not respond to requests for comment.

Jamie Longazel is a professor at the University of Dayton and specializes in immigrant issues. He says cuts to subsidized housing and other social service agencies are an increasing trend around the country.

And so immigrant groups, particularly low-income immigrant groups, are probably are going to be the first ones, frankly, to see many of their services go. And so the absence of a program like this, or the removal of a program like this, isn’t surprising given the current economic climate.

Longazel is even more skeptical about the economic climate going forward, especially in cities. Longazel says there’s a new trend of immigrants moving to rural areas.

Back at the Somali community association, Ifrah Farah, the recent immigrant who was pepper-sprayed, pauses when asked if she regrets coming to the U.S.

So far, I not regret coming here, but it’s shocking that I just met this while I was just going there to get an application.