12 Days of Caring: Somali Association of Central Pennsylvania helps refugees

Salat Mohamed teaches an English class at the Somali Association of Central Pa., a nonprofit that aids Somali refugees.  JOE HERMITT, The Patriot-NewsEvery year over the holiday season, The Patriot-News presents 12 Days of Caring, highlighting a dozen charities that provide needed services in our community. Each of the organizations depends on donations to help underwrite its operations. Today’s story about the Somali Association of Central Pennsylvania is the 11th in the series.
To most, learning to write down a telephone or Social Security number wasn’t a big deal.
But to 67-year-old Abdiyo Osman, who doesn’t know English, the task is a milestone.

Displaced from Somalia three years ago because of a tribal war that’s been brewing there for 20 years, Osman has been in Mechanicsburg ever since.

Some might wonder why the refugee came to the midstate, a place the polar opposite of her native land. She came here for the Somali Association of Central Pennsylvania.

Established in 2008 in Hampden Twp., word of mouth spread spread quickly that Somalis had gathered there to start new lives in the United States. Once they arrive, the association helps them adjust to life much different than back home.

“It’s a terrible place,” Osman said of her home in Somalia. “It was one of the worst lives.”

The impoverished east African country is a place where law and order has all but disappeared. To most of the 500 refugees of more than 80 families that have settled in the midstate, loss has been a way of life.

Many Americans may know of Somalia from the 2001 move “Black Hawk Down,’’ which recounts the true story of a 1993 battle in Mogadishu, where U.S. troops there as part of a UN peace keeing mission are killed in a botched attempt to capture a warlord. Pictures from the battle, showing Somalis dragging dead American soldiers in the street, made national headlines.

More recently, Somalia has been in the news as a haven for pirates that continue to threaten commercial shipping.

Aden Aden, a founder of the Somali Association of Central Pennsylvania, knows what it feels like to leave family behind. He left Somalia and entered Kenya before the war swallowed him up.

Much of his family didn’t make it.

“Almost everyone here has lost someone,” Aden said.

In Kenya, Aden got a high school education and learn to speak English in peace. Osman spent a short time in Kenya before coming to the states, but she never got an education — until she came here.

Three times a week, Osman meets with several other refugees and takes classes in a tiny room in a small building in the West Shore office park off the Carlisle Pike. It is there Osman has learns how to write and adapt to American Culture.

One week it’s a lesson about the U.S. medical system and health care. The next week it’s budgeting money and opening a bank account. “It’s important to be able to do those basic things,” Osman said.

The Somali Association of Central Pennsylvania also works with various hiring agencies to help find refugees work in factories. Since most can’t speak English yet, it’s work that’s easiest to find.

With a job and basic life skills, refugees take steps toward the association’s idea of success — independent living.

It’s a life defined by opportunity as much as challenge.

The hurdle of America has been adapting.

“To come to any culture from the outside is going to be difficult,” Osman said.

But she’s happy with her new life.

And Aden Ahmed is more than happy.

At 63, Ahmed remembers a Somali without rape, murder and brutal crime. It was once a place of peace, where you could wake without worrying about bombs.

Having spent only one year in the United States, Ahmed has started a new life and is learning every day. It’s something he’s grateful for. “Learning is a basic thing,” Aden said. “It’s something we do all the time.”

In Somalia, it was unsafe to learn about anything but running away.

And the teaching has come with its challenges.

As a nonprofit organization, all of those who teach classes do it on a volunteer basis, often sacrificing time on the weekends to meet for class.

But to organizers like Aden, it’s worth it.

“This is about changing life through education,” Aden said. “It’s about making a better life for our people.”

How to help

  • Contributions to the Somali Association of Central Pennsylvania can be sent to The Somali Association of Central Pennsylvania, 5002 Lenker St., Suite 205, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050.
  • The association can be reached at 717-525-7948 or email robleosman@sacepa.org
  • On the Web at www.sacepa.org