OWATONNA — Ibrahim Hussein was so overwhelmed with emotion at the Somali American Cultural Society of Owatonna (SACSO) volunteer appreciation dinner, he folded up his speech and let the moment speak for itself.
Four years ago, Hussein said he couldn’t imagine standing in front of the crowd of volunteers, community stakeholders, friends and Somali families at the dinner on Friday night.
Hussein is the founder and director of SACSO, a nonprofit organization located on East Front Street in Owatonna that serves as an afterschool program to help Somali students with their homework. At the time he thought of creating SACSO, he was working at McKinley Elementary School as a Somali liaison.
It was at McKinley that he realized there were “many things lacking,” but he didn’t know “how long we were going to do this.”
On Friday, four years later, he returned to the initial place of inspiration, greeting every guest with an infectious smile and hug, or selfie with Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism president Jennifer Libby.
At the dinner, women of all ages were wearing a beautiful shaash, or scarf, together creating an array of colors like a rainbow. Children were playing and waiting patiently for the dinner to commence, and then afterward a number of students utilizing the program shared their stories of success and gratitude for SACSO.
Their stories echoed Hussein’s initial struggle to adapt due to a lack of resources and knowledge of the English language. Unlike their peers, Somali students’ parents are unable to sit down with their child after school to help them with their homework.
“My nieces and nephews would always come to my house to ask for help with their homework,” said Mariama Omar, a 10th-grader at Owatonna High School. “Now they’ve started coming less, which is relief off my chest.”
Omar, 16, said they came to her for help because their parents didn’t know the language. She, too, had to take Title 1 classes to improve her own language skills, but admits she didn’t have it as bad as her oldest sister who was a sixth-grader completely unfamiliar with English when her family moved to Owatonna in 2004.
Her mother, Hindi Ali, started talking with Hussein about doing something to help because she also knew zero English. But that didn’t stop her from graduating from South Central College in Faribault with a degree in early childhood education just 10 years later.
The reason why SACSO is so influential is because there’s compassion intertwined with a desire to succeed.
“We know their pain,” Ali said. “My kids and I were the first to volunteer because we said if you think you can work for change, you can. Just try.”
Change is more than grades, though. Ali said Somali students with the power of language have more confidence to make friends and feel more part of the school and community.
“Be proud of yourself. This is something to be proud of,” said Siad Ali, guest speaker from Owatonna who currently serves on the Minneapolis Public School Board.
He’s also a senior constituent advocate for Sen. Amy Klobuchar in the areas of immigration casework and community outreach. While living in Owatonna, he was an adjunct faculty member at Riverland Community College, member of the Human Rights Commission and Allina Hospital Board of Trustees.
“Nothing is greater than the fact that we hear these fine students speaking,” he said, “and soon they will be leaders.”
According to SACSO’s website, “The lack of English proficiency has been identified as the main reason Somali adults are not represented within the Owatonna school district.”
To celebrate the work of volunteers looking to increase English proficiency and overall success of the Somali community in Owatonna, traditional Somali cuisine was served including goat, fish, rice, vegetables, salad, bananas, sambusa and malawax, similar to a pancake, as well as Somali tea.
“We’re here to show our appreciation,” said Caryn Boetel, SACSO board member. “We want this to be a source for inviting the community and to put the SACSO name out there.”
Despite the efforts of the volunteers over the last four years, Boetel said they have a limit on the number of kids they can tutor. SACSO will look to recruit volunteers to cut down on the number of students on the waiting list, which Hussein said is long, but among the volunteers, SACSO is able to currently serve 34 students.
On Monday, those students were rewarded for their hard work and got to celebrate the end of the school year with a pizza party. Hussein said come August, SACSO will gear up for another year of tutoring.