Sixteen years ago Hussein Samatar was a refugee from Somalia trying to learn English; now as the executive director of the African Development Center in Cedar-Riverside, he helps immigrants who are in a weak financial position, like he was when he first came to Minnesota.
The center, not a social service agency, does business planning, training and lending, as well as homeownership lending and financial literacy training. It provides interest-free loans and home buying options, which cater to Muslim clients complying with the shariah, or Islamic law.
The center and its all-African immigrant staff moved from its previous location to replace the North Country Co-op at 20th Avenue in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. The bright orange and green building is conveniently located close to the University’s Carlson School of Management, Augsburg College, the People’s Center and a vibrant East African community.
“We wanted to stay in Cedar-Riverside because we want to send a different signal to what most may perceive this community to be,” Samatar said. “Violence is here, but it doesn’t define me, the center, or the community.”
Most who use the center’s services are African, Asian and Latin American immigrants, as well as Latin Americans with a low income status.
“When you’re new, you don’t understand how to buy a house or how to establish your credit,” Samatar said, speaking from experience.
Since it was founded in 2004, the center has trained more than 1,000 families, 44 percent of which became first-time homebuyers in the first six months. Another 350 families have received financial literacy training. So far, 350 businesses have been trained by the center and half have borrowed money from it.
For revenue, the center also rents out 10 of its rooms to offices that cater to the predominantly African community.
“Who knew that this community could create something out of nothing?” Samatar said. “Who knew when we came 16 years ago that we could be a part of this landscape?”
Samatar said the inspiration for the center came because of his philosophy of unity, hope and overcoming hardship.
He grew up in Somalia and graduated from the Somali National University with a B.A. in economics in 1991 — the same year the Somali civil war broke out. Samatar’s class was the last to graduate from that university.
“I’ve seen war, I know what it does,” he said. “But I never took that war to be personally against me. They were fighting for something that could’ve been solved by dialogue.”
In 1993, Samatar finally had an opportunity to enter the United States, but he had to come by himself.
“That’s one of the unfortunate things about the Somali civil war. It displaced people,” he said. “But I never looked back; I looked forward. I thought about how I could make something of myself, my family and my community.”
Although Samatar was fluent in Somali and Italian, he said his first challenge in Minnesota was mastering English. He also said overcoming the cultural barrier was difficult.
“Every immigrant group that came before Somalis has had to overcome that,” he said.
In just seven years, Samatar received his MBA in finance from the University of St. Thomas , started a family and bought a house. After working as a banker for Wells Fargo for three years, Samatar said he wanted to try something new. His struggles as an immigrant in the U.S. inspired him to establish a community development organization that would provide the necessary economic tools for lower income residents and immigrants to address their housing and financial concerns.
“We felt we could do something for the whole community and especially for Africans because that encompasses the community here,” Samatar said of Cedar-Riverside.
After 18 months of a grassroots campaign to get funding, the center was finally a working organization in 2004. It initially did community organizing. Five years later, the African Development Center now boasts a staff of eight African immigrants educated in the Twin Cities who together can speak 10 languages.
“What makes us unique is that we’re culturally competent because we have the immigrant experience,” Samatar said. “We know what people go through to make it.”
Apparently, others are noticing too. It’s the only ethnic organization in the state with the capacity to lend. The city called the African Development Center the best small business lender in Minneapolis in 2007 and 2008. Samatar won the Living Legend award along with former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton . He has also received two Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal awards, including the Minority Business Award.
Sahra Mohamud , a University senior majoring in journalism and sociology, interns for the African Development Center. She said she was attracted to the center because of its strong African roots and the opportunities it offered for her community.
“It gives more Africans the window to become self-sufficient,” Mohamud said. “People who can’t speak English find it really hard to progress in this society. It’s hard to not understand how the system works.”
Abdi Adam , the owner of Afrik Grocery — a halal meat and food store on Cedar Avenue and 6th Street — said he used the ADC’s interest-free loans when expanding his store in 2005.
“I needed help and they gave me shariah-compliant services,” he said. “The loan and business training were helpful.” The center called him whenever he was behind in paying back his loan, which Adam said the bank didn’t do.