Amina Saleh builds bridges


She survived Somali’s civil war, spent years in a Kenyan refugee camp and is a single mother in a strange country, but Amina Saleh’s biggest challenge is getting people to talk to each other.

As a community organizer, Saleh works for a Somali population that often finds itself at odds with the greater metro area around it. For example, even Family & Children’s Service (FCS), the non-profit agency Saleh works for, supports GLBT causes—a lifestyle strictly prohibited by Islamic law.

It’s part of Saleh’s job to make sure groups like these acknowledge and respect each other. “She’s really good at bringing people to a table who might not otherwise want to be at the table with each other,” said Jeff Bauer, Saleh’s boss and director of community & systems change at FCS.

From adjusting to the American way of life to dealing with more diverse neighbors, Saleh uses her ethnic, personal and educational background to serve her community.

”My job is to bring people together to make positive changes,” Saleh said.

Saleh learned English and earned her college degree while living in her birthplace: Mogadishu, Somali’s capital. After the African country’s civil war forced her to flee to a Kenyan refugee camp, Saleh landed in Rochester, Minn., and eventually the Twin Cities in 2003.

Saleh said her education made it easier for her to assimilate into American culture, but she initially felt isolated because the large extended family she left in Somali was missing.

“When you are lonely and you don’t have [family], it’s so hard.” Saleh said. “It was really frustrating when I came first, but once you learn everything you need to adjust, after some time, you get numb to it. “

Sale said the reason the Twin Cities attract Somali immigrants is because of the large population already here.

“The people who are coming now, it is easy for them because they have people who have been here many years before them,” Saleh said. “But for us who came a long time [ago], it was so hard.”

Still, Saleh’s work is needed. Many Somali immigrants don’t realize how important certain organizations are to their families’ wellbeing, but Saleh teaches small classes to members of the community who spread the information to their friends and family.

“Some of the mothers here don’t understand how important it is to join the PTO [parent teacher organization] or go to the school conferences,” Saleh said.
Bauer said communicating this need is made easier because of her familiarity with both cultures and languages.

“Amina can have conversations with Somali women that I clearly couldn’t or a lot of other couldn’t have,” Bauer said. “We reach more people because we do work with Somali speaking people with very limited English that we just wouldn’t be able to reach at all without Amina.”

Her knowledge and understanding of multiple cultures has proved invaluable in more subtle ways, Bauer said. Saleh must balance the goals of her Somali community with the rest of FCS’s clients.

“She was able to navigate that tension really effectively,” Bauer said.

Bauer said that tension makes Saleh’s job more than community advocacy. While her overall goal is to “bring people together to work together”, that doesn’t mean she is only concerned with what is best for the Somali community.

“She’s really grown into that role,” Bauer said.

Saleh is currently working on ways to prevent violence committed by youth who drop out of or graduate high school and are left with nothing to do. Saleh hopes that by keeping the youths busy with leadership courses, job training and active community involvement, she can steer them away from the drug, gangs and violence that have sprouted in the community.
“If they just stand outside…anybody can take advantage of them,” Saleh said. “That’s what my biggest worry is.”

Saleh said she didn’t know if her efforts would engage the same type of young men who have been allegedly been recruited to fight in Somali’s civil war, but agreed it could help.

“They can get involved in anything,” she said.

As a mother herself, Saleh said she understands the fears of the missing men’s parents.

Saleh’s two sons are all the family she has in Minneapolis. She said that although it was difficult living without her whole family, her work has provided a new sort of family.

“I don’t feel very lonely because all the time I’m around people,” Saleh said.

Saleh said the work she’s done with her community have built strong relationships that have helped her with her own personal struggles, especially dealing with a new home.

““The community I’m organizing is my community, so I feel like I’m around my people,” Saleh said. “When you help other, you are helping yourself. We believe in that.”