As Somali Civil War Smolders, Bostonians Help Refugees Adjust to New Life in U.S

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As Somali Civil War Smolders, Bostonians Help Refugees Adjust to New Life in U.S.

Although the long and confusing Somali civil war no longer captures American headlines, the conflict is by no means over, according to a Somali activist assisting refugees to start new lives in Boston.

"Even today there is no central government," said Abdul Hussein, executive director and co-founder of the Somali Development Center in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood. "The whole idea is that a reconciliation is still going on, yet there has been a total collapse [of that effort]."

Although the massive starvation and large massacres that shocked the world and prompted foreign intervention in the early 1990s are no longer threats, there are isolated killings and many Somalis feel unsafe. He cited recent killings in the cities of Hopio and Kismayo as examples of the continuing violence which drives Somalis out of their country.

Close to 3,000 Somali refugees, almost all of them Muslim, have settled in Boston in recent years, creating one of the larger concentrations in the U.S. According to the 37-year-old Hussein, most Somalis arriving in Boston are traumatized from the war. "They lost everything, they are emotionally unstable and many families are headed by single mothers," he said. "Close to 80 to 85 percent of the Somalis who are coming here are faced with culture shock."

Explaining that young children are usually the only ones who do not suffer some form of dislocation, Hussein noted that most Somalis are nomads and illiterate in their own language. Because they worked primarily as herders, most Somalis did not have experience with jobs having set hours. With its emphasis on regular employment and on governmental and social institutions outside extended families and the clan, life in modem America requires a different set of skills.

Public attitudes toward immigrants had changed by the 1990s, Hussein said, adding that reductions in welfare and social service programs hit Somalis hard.

"They were dropped in the middle of the city and expected to swim," he said.

A former computer programmer who came to the U.S. in 1988, Hussein has a degree from Boston's Wentworth Institute of Technology. "Because the numbers of refugees in Boston was increasing, I wanted to do what I could," Hussein said. "It was total chaos."

He said the Somali Development Center was founded in March 1996 to provide job training, English lessons and practical assistance, such as providing access to housing and health care. The center will often sort mail, showing Somalis how to differentiate between junk advertisements and official letters, which must be responded to.

Hussein had been working at the high technology company Electronic Data Systems when he brought a co-worker, Susan Crowley, to a meeting on Somali issues. Also a computer programmer, Crowley had helped various non-profit groups in the past and was touched by the problems the Somali immigrants faced. She decided to get involved, and eventually she and Hussein left their jobs at EDS and opened the Development Center.

Crowley and Hussein credit James Driscoll of the Waltham-based division of EDS for getting the project going with a generous two-year grant. …