This Somali American Woman Is Taking Care of Herself — and Others
When she emigrated from Mogadishu to San Diego as an asylee 21 years ago, Fartun Weli had a simple list of goals: enroll in school, learn English, earn money to send home, and, when her home nation recovered from war and strife, return to live in Somalia and teach young women.
She never thought she’d end up living in the Twin Cities of Minnesota — home to the nation’s largest Somali American population — and become the CEO of a nonprofit serving Somali American women and girls, overseeing an annual budget of more than $1 million.
"Somali women belong to so many categories that can work against us and deplete a woman’s self-confidence if you look at us through stereotypes."
Since its founding a decade ago after Weli’s own struggle finding culturally relevant infertility resources as a Somali American woman who faced challenges conceiving a child, Fartun has led Isuroon, a nonprofit that borrows its name from a Somali word that means “woman taking care of herself.” From its humble beginnings as a one-person shop for women needing aid with healthcare resources, the nonprofit today has expanded to its own 4,000-square-foot office in Minneapolis with 18 staffers.
These days, the organization offers a wide range of services, from a drop-in center for food and rental-payment assistance and legal aid to mental health services, job-placement resources, and healthcare referrals. During the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to sickness, death, and unemployment — especially among the Somali American community in Minnesota — Isuroon has also grown its work in food and financial services.
In 2014, the organization received more than $18,000 from members of the Seward Community Co-op grocery store in Minneapolis to start a food pantry and began stocking rice, flour, sugar, pasta, and halal meats, items that are hard to find at other food pantries in the region. This year, Isuroon grew from running that single food pantry to having 11 throughout the state. The group now also operates two emergency phone lines that are staffed by Somali speakers, ready to assist those in need. Isuroon, which generates the bulk of its operating budget through grants, has supported more than 400 Somali Americans whose families were in danger of eviction this year by covering their overdue rent. Some were behind by seven months.
“Somali women belong to so many categories that can work against us and deplete a woman’s self-confidence if you look at us through stereotypes,” says Weli. “We are Black, we are often Muslim immigrants, many wear hijabs, some are single mothers, and now the pandemic is affecting us, too. What we do at Isuroon is work to flip those stereotypes, changing the way women are looked at and taking the independent voice and spirit of Somali women and amplifying it.”
Somalis have settled in Minnesota in large numbers since the 1990s, after war, political turmoil, and power struggles broke out in Somalia following the overturn of Mohamed Siad Barre’s military regime. Many immigrants began their new lives on the West Coast before migrating to Minnesota for jobs in meat-processing plants — the same path and initial job that Weli took. A Somali American community blossomed in the Twin Cities.
"When the pandemic hit, it hurt our community even more than others."
According to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, there are 57,000 Somali Americans in the state, the largest concentration of the community in the U.S. Somali Americans in Minnesota represent about 7% of the global Somali diaspora. The vast majority of Somali Americans come from Muslim backgrounds.
The Somali American community is also more likely than the general population to live in poverty. About 12% of Minnesotans have an income that’s below the federal poverty line, according to 2018 data. For Somali Americans, that figure is 54%. About 65% of Somali children live in poverty. The situation has gotten worse this year.
“When the pandemic hit, it hurt our community even more than others,” says Weli, who has also recently seen an uptick in social isolation among community members, in particular the elderly, who have called the organization seeking help and friendship. “What we hope is to help our families stay afloat and continue to grow and support themselves for the long term.”
Weli, who after her initial work at the meat factory began working at a local hospital as a phlebotomist (a person who draws blood), got her start in civic engagement when she volunteered for John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. By 2008, she had become a citizen and voted for the first time.
Isuroon isn’t the only Somali American organization in a city known for its East African communities. But because of its focus on women and girls, it’s attracted a unique set of clients and community members.
Muna Mohamed, Isuroon’s youth coordinator, says the group has also grown a niche in fostering intergenerational relations. Right before the pandemic, she was helping recruit mentors for Rajo (“hope”), the organization’s youth program that works on student tutoring, among other projects.
Isuroon is “important for communities, especially communities of color, to have a place to come back to that promotes self-advocacy, as well as good mental and physical health,” says Mohamed, 18. “It's a place where we can connect the generational communication gaps a little bit. Letting the younger generation connect to the older generation, for us to learn from each other, benefit from each other.”
Over the years, Isuroon has taken on a host of controversial and taboo topics, the biggest perhaps being its opposition to female genital cutting — also called female genital mutilation (aka FGM). Weli has spoken at conferences, seminars, and in legislative settings against the misconception that the practice — popular in Somalia but largely frowned upon by Somali American communities — is condoned by Islam. She has also advocated for mental health and healthcare access for Somali American women who have experienced FGM, as well as platforms for those women to speak out for themselves instead of being spoken for by non-Somali men and women.
“I used to think I’d return home and empower women there,” says Weli. “But I started to see there is a power in helping your community right here in the United States.”