A non-profit that helped Minnesota's newest African immigrants is closing.
The East African Women's Center, in the heart of Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis, shut its doors Tuesday. During the seven years the center was open, it helped women learn English, parenting skills, and how to navigate life in a new country.
The Confederation of Somali Community, which sponsors the center, voted in December to close it because there wasn't enough grant funding to meet the center's $130,000 annual budget.
On Monday, ten women from Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen sit on couches after their English class. Their children play in the early childhood center in the next room.
These mothers have been in the country just a few months.
"I come on this Sept. 29. Four months. America. Very good," said Tofaha Ali who came from Somalia, making it to the United States with her two daughters by way of Yemen and Malaysia.
Through a translator, Ali asks "Where do I go? I've been her only four months. I don't know where I go right now."
Most of the women have similar stories of bewilderment. Most are single mothers. Some are learning to read and write for the first time. At the center they learned how to enroll their kids in school, sign a lease and cook nutritious new vegetables.
Last week, they found out that the East African Women's Center would be closing.
Aziza Ahmed came from Ethiopia 14 months ago.
"They help us very well. But we sad for this center," Ahmed said. "We very sad."
Closing the center was a very difficult decision, said Board treasurer Becky Stewart.
"It's a sad day for the Confederation of Somali Community," Stewart said. "It's a program that we really have been proud of, with really positive results and there have been really heartwarming stories about the impact on women and their children."
Stewart cited the tough economic climate for non-profits, foundations with less to give, and a narrow definition for refugee services — usually just the few months after arrival even if the community's needs are ongoing.
Center Director Doroth Mayer is preparing to wrap up seven years' worth of work with Minnesota's newest and poorest arrivals.
"When I started the center, I really — the children were my focus, but somewhere along the line, I think I realized that moms needed to be," Mayer said.
Mayer saw having mothers learn English as a critical way to propel refugee families forward in a new country.
"There's probably 500 moms in the complex at least, who have been here five,10 years and cannot speak English because they can't have child care to go to ESL class," Mayer said. "How can a mom, how can a mom help her child be school-ready, help her child with homework, start noticing if red flags go up with their behavior, or ever have a sustainable income for her family if she can't learn English?"
A year ago, the center started focusing on an even more challenging population — women who arrived with no family or support.
The Minnesota Council of Churches, one of six refugee resettlement agencies in Minnesota, asked the center to take on what are called 'free cases.' These are people who come to the U.S. with no sponsor or family or friends to help them.
Free cases get assigned to a state and also to a resettlement agency, arrive on an airplane and have up to 90 days to get resettled, said Rachele King, director of Refugee Services for the Council. It is especially difficult for single mothers to make it, she said.
"We found that they became more socially isolated when they came and had a lot more problems with adjustment because they were really focusing on their kids and we just found them struggling a lot more than other types of families," King said.
The center's "survival English classes" and its sense of community helped these women them find their footing," King said. She's not sure who will step in to do that work now.
Center staffer Kali Ali says somehow she will find a way to continue this work. Ali came to the U.S. 12 years ago from Somalia, and said she knows what these women are up against, and how important it is to get off to a good start in a new country.
"There's a lot of school dropouts for kids, there's a lot of gangs that's happening," Ali said. "There's a lot of bad things that's happening and it's all because the first couple years they're in the country these people fall through the cracks. The kids will get into trouble, the mom does not know what is going on. But once people pay attention to those people at their first couple years or whatever it is. But I think that's the first step that people should look at is how to help more of the newcomers."
In 2010, 1,166 refugees arrived as "free cases" in Minnesota. In 2011, that number fell to 270.