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Somali woman opens Grand Forks center to help other refugees

When Kowsar Shafie, a young woman of Somalia, arrived in the U.S. in 2001 from a refugee camp in Kenya, she spoke no English and was dependent on others' help for virtually everything.

Kowsar Shafie
Kowsar Shafie will open her African Community Service office Wednesday in a strip mall on South Washington Street. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

When Kowsar Shafie, a young woman of Somalia, arrived in the U.S. in 2001 from a refugee camp in Kenya, she spoke no English and was dependent on others' help for virtually everything.

She speaks the language easily now, a colorful, nearly flawless English frequently accented by laughter. "But I remember how I felt then," she said. "If I wanted to go shopping, if I had a doctor's appointment -- anything -- my sister had to come with me."

Now Kowsar Shafie aims to be the guide.

At 3 p.m. today, with city officials, social service leaders and others by her side, Shafie will open a small office in a south Grand Forks strip mall and hang her shingle -- African Community Service -- formalizing the work she has been doing voluntarily for months.

"This is my home now, and I think it's wonderful," she said Tuesday as she worked through a checklist of things that had to be done before today's ceremony.

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"I'm proud of myself for coming as far as I've come, and I think it is wonderful how people here have been so welcoming, so ready to help.

"Help people, and God will help you."

Now a growing Grand Forks Somali population needs help, she said, and she sees a role for herself -- translating so parents can take part in teacher conferences, helping newcomers sort through applications for housing and other assistance, arranging rides to the hospital and clinics for people without vehicles.

"The language barrier can be so hard," she said. "But these are straight-up people who want to go to school, be educated, be a family and be able to support a family -- opportunities they didn't have back home but they have in the U.S."

All that, plus snow.

"I love the snow," Shafie said. "I hate the windy cold, but I love the snow. It's gorgeous. I just stand outside and let it fall into my eyes."

A failed state

The growing Grand Forks Somali population -- between 200 and 300, according to people who work with refugee resettlement -- inspired the opening last summer of Halal Meat on South Washington Street. There, customers can buy meats processed according to Islamic requirements as well as dates from Saudi Arabia, sardines from Morocco and other foods familiar to people from that part of the world.

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"It's really great to see some of the people who came as refugees get involved in the community and help shape the community," said Robin David, president of the board of directors of the Global Friends Coalition, an advocacy group for immigrants and refugees in Grand Forks.

It's important, too, David said, that the larger community respond and offer help and encouragement when that's needed.

Shafie's small office is a few steps from the market. But it is light years from Somalia, a failed state that has been without a functioning government since civil war broke out between clan warlords in 1991.

Shafie was born there but spent much of her youth in Kenya, including time in refugee camps. She and her parents and siblings arrived in the United States in 2001.

"On Feb. 16, 2001," she said, smiling. "At 3 p.m."

The family made its way to Minnesota, and she attended English classes before enrolling in high school. After graduation, she enrolled at Inver Grove Heights Community College to study nursing. In 2007, she continued her studies at Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks.

She works part time as a certified nursing assistant at Altru Hospital.

"There were not that many Somalis here at the time I came, but more came in 2008," she said.

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As she helped newcomers adjust, word spread. "I think all Somalis in Grand Forks have my number," she said.

A strong woman

Eventually, people suggested that she open a community center. Others weren't so sure it was a good idea.

"There are Somali guys who think I'm not capable of doing it because I am a woman," she said. "But I am a strong, educated woman, and no one can tell me what to do -- or what not to do."

She found an attorney and applied for 501c status, which will make her nonprofit center eligible for tax-deductible donations. The application is pending, but she already has received help, including the donation of a large desk and chair from the Community Violence Intervention Center in Grand Forks. She's hoping for help with office rent from local churches.

The mayor's office, other social agencies and her new office neighbors also have been helpful, she said.

"We've talked a lot already," said Del Scholler, who with wife June has a real estate office across the hall. "She has a lot of energy and a lot of ideas, and I hope it all works out for her."

June Scholler calls Shafie "my 15th grandchild" and promised her a tub of homemade potato salad to celebrate the office opening.

"They're very good neighbors," Shafie said.

Once she gets the office running, she plans to continue her nursing education.

"My passion is to help people," she said. "It's about how you treat people. If you treat them as you want to be treated, if you show that you respect them for who they are, life can be wonderful."

African Community Service will be "open to anybody I can help -- other Africans, other Americans," she said. "We will work together to make a better city."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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