The wrestling match lasted for almost a minute. Two young men from Somalia and Ethiopia respectively, locked into each other’s arms, test each other’s strength while their friends watch and cheer. A group of elders, mostly from Somalia, stood outside the building discussing recent changes on Green Cards, and the latest news from home. A couple of Asian elders dropped some clothes into laundry machines located on the main floor of the building. This is 1247 St. Anthony Avenue in St. Paul.
Skyline Tower is a massive building that accommodates more than 500 tenants from different countries with varied ethnic backgrounds. Built in the 1970s, Skyline Towers, also known by many as the “United Nations,” has been home for immigrant families from Asia to Africa. It is sometimes overcrowded.
“My sister used to live here about 20 years ago. I like working here, learning all these different dialects and cultures” says Yvonne Brazelton-Singleton, program assistant with CommonBond Communities which took over the Skyline Tower a few years ago.
Over the past years, 1247 St. Anthony housed thousands of foreigners from all over the world. These days, many Somalis live at the Skyline Tower, becoming the majority of its tenants. In the 1970s, mostly Asian tenants, especially from Vietnam occupied it. Since the 1970s, not only the residents, but also the building management have changed.
“Many families like the Skyline Tower for various reasons” says Bekama Mohamed, from Somalia. It is the first stop for many Somali immigrants and many have learned to compromise with their neighbors. Many agree that it is one of the places in the Twin Cities where foreigners with little or no English language skills can live and slowly adjust to life in America.
“I like living in this building. Sometimes, I get free babysitting, where can you get that? Asked Halima Mohamed, also from Somalia. “Women help each other. When one of us has appointment, we take care each other’s kids,” Halima, a seven-year resident, added.
She says sometimes when her children come home from school and for some reason she couldn’t be there, she doesn’t have to worry. She calls one of her many neighbors to receive them. She said many things are handy here. For example, a health center has nurses who regularly come to check anyone in need. The building also has laundry and grocery. “It is also safe and we have not had any major incidents for years,” says Ms. Mohamed.
Grocery and more
Tower Foods, located on the main floor of the building sells both African specialties and continental foods. “We sell foods from Africa and there are no long lineups. Therefore, we keep many moms and dads closer to their children,” says Abdi Rashid Ali, manager of Tower Foods.
As Ali collected money from one customer, he was at the same time helping an elder to fill out a Social Security application. “We regularly assist our customers with these things,” says Ali, 30, from Somalia. “Things like filling forms, calling for appointments, translating or interpreting or whatever we could help them, we do for them.”
When Sahra Jama, a 67-year-old Somali grandmother moved to the Twin Cites from San Diego, California in 1995, she could not find a home. Jama was directed to the Skyline Tower where she was surprised to meet people from her country willing to share with their other East African neighbors. She met with other nationalities every week and it helped her to become less distressed. “Everybody calls it United Nations,” says Jama, “I never knew that name.”
“People help each other,” says Abubakar Jallow from Gambia, West Africa, who moved into the building three years ago. “It reminds me of Africa.”
“It is nice to be close to people you know from home and get help immediately,” says Makonnen Gelalcka, 54, who prefers to call his country Oromia-Ethopia. “If someone got sick, we take them to the hospital. We understand each other. We established a network of friends especially elders that take care of each other.”
It is a sentiment shared by many. However, the dream of going back home one day still lingers. Many of the residents came to the Twin Cities as refugees when war broke out in their native countries. Skyline Tower is a second home for many people from war-torn countries and foreigners who can’t speak English, but feel comfortable helping and interacting with their compatriots.
“If your car could [not] start, I don’t call towing trucks, I just knock the door on one of many friends living in the building,” says Gelalcka. “If someone is sick in his or her room, and no one saw that person for a day or two, we check to see if everything is OK. Therefore, we create a bond and I know that. These are some of the reasons many of us hang around in this building.”
CommonBond Communities, which manages 1247 St. Anthony, provides resources such as the Homework Center, nursing visits, and security for its residents. Residents say the elevators, installed since 1931, need to be changed as they are frequent trapped in the 24-floor building. “When old people get stuck in the elevator, they just panic,” says Bekama Mohamed, a resident at Skyline Tower since 1992. “It happens more often, it a nightmare for them.” Tenants also say there is not prompt clearing out of garbage that some of the tenants leave on the floors.
The idea of living in a community brings many newcomers to 1247. For others, it is just difficult to move away from a building that has become a second home where they have made many new friends.
Issa A. Mansaray is a strong advocate of press freedom and human rights. Born in Sierra Leone, he has traveled through Africa, Europe, and the U.S reporting on press freedom, and human rights violations. Mansaray is an award-winning journalist and a frequent contributor to the International Press Institute’s World Press Freedom Review. He is a graduate of Webster University, and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.