Fit to Be Tied 

The Strongest Thread Tying the City and its Isolated Somali Community Just Got Cut

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LUL ABDULLE'S office is filled with scraps of fabric and posters extolling the power of the vote. Outside her door, a half dozen sewing machines whir and women cheerfully banter in Somali, a loud and turbulent language. For the last year, Abdulle has been one of the few strong links between the city government and the insular community of 5,000 Somali immigrants living in Portland.

But this month, funding for Abdulle's job as an outreach worker at Central Northeast Neighbors ran out. Now, Abdulle and the group hope that all the government groups benefiting from her unique connections will pony up the dollars needed to keep the Somalis linked to the city.

Abdulle escaped from Somalia—she fled the country's civil war—and lived in Texas for 10 years before landing in the Northwest in 2003. Coming from a community of politically active Somalis in Texas, Abdulle says she was shocked to find that the only government branch most Portland Somalis knew of was the Department of Human Services—the welfare office. Somalis in Portland rarely attended community meetings or parent/teacher conferences, voted, or used public parks. Men and women in the isolated community had trouble learning English because they spent so little time with native speakers. Their kids had a high dropout rate.

"I was thinking to myself, 'What is wrong with this city?'" says Abdulle. "Where is the civic engagement?"

After spending a few years getting to know the city, and working informally as a leader in the Somali community, Abdulle snagged several small grants from the mayor's office and the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) to become the city's only official Somali outreach worker.

The grants only covered 16 hours a week in salary, but at night Abdulle would hand out flyers for community meetings door to door, and on weekends she ran a women's sewing group in the basement of a church in Southeast Portland's Belmont neighborhood. At the group, Somali women learn to sew their own clothes—mostly long, wildly patterned dresses called diracs—while talking about their lives and problems.

"What Lul does is provide an ear into that community, and to the mothers who really know what's going on," explains Jeremy Van Keuren, public advocate in the mayor's office. Somalis tend to deal with crimes like domestic violence without involving the police, who they grew up distrusting back home in Somalia. "If it weren't for Lul, I don't think we'd hear about it ever," says Van Keuren. "Lul is straddling two worlds."

"Most of the African community here come from corrupted countries back home," says Abdi Ali, a Somali outreach worker at Southeast nonprofit Africa House, explaining that he and Abdulle ran workshops showing local Somalis how to connect with the city.

With Abdulle's persistent invitations and explanations of the city process, Somalis began turning up at planning meetings in the Cully neighborhood, where most of them live. "We never knew that a public hearing or budget hearing could have community impact," says Abdulle. "Now they look around and say, 'Hey! We changed this street!'"

When Somalis began speaking up at planning meetings, parks officials learned that Somalis did not stay long in public parks, for example, because there was no private space to pray—something devout Somalis do multiple times a day. Build some enclosed areas in the green spaces and unintentionally exclusive public parks could become Somali friendly, the city learned.

Despite her role as a unique bridge between otherwise unfamiliar groups, the money for Abdulle's position dried up on July 1. It was no surprise that the funding ran out, explains Sandra Lefrancois, neighborhood involvement specialist at Central Northeast Neighbors, since the position was piecemealed from various small grants.

"Lul stepped in and wore many hats for many agencies that haven't put in funding. She filled a gap that nobody was filling," says Lefrancois, who hopes that ONI and the mayor's office will dig up the money to keep Abdulle as their link to the Somali community.

In the meantime, Abdulle is keeping her sewing circle and workshops going while she looks for grants and considers taking on a more formal job to pay the bills.

"I started as a volunteer," Abdulle says. "But I can't be a volunteer for good."

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