Greetings From Somalia, Ohio

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It started with a simple sign at the entrance that lists hours of operation. Then, it spread to the onsite ATM.

But only about 100 of Big Bear/Members First CU's members-all from Somalia, Africa-can read it. And that's OK with officials of the credit union.

Offering information in the Somali language is only the CU's first gesture of welcome to the area's newest-and growing-immigrant population.

Starting next month, Big Bear/Members First CU will begin offering financial education classes to the 20,000 Somalis estimated to be living in the Columbus area, many having escaped from refugee camps with no English speaking skills, or formal education, for that matter.

With financial backing from the Ohio Credit Union Foundation, offers of in-kind and monetary support from other local CUs, they will offer sixteen classes throughout the Somali neighborhoods in 2003.

Sue Helmreich, outreach manager of the Ohio Credit Union League, said these classes would follow the general format of the Latino Financial Literacy Program, now beginning its second year in Columbus. She said the goal is to have the Latino program available throughout the state by 2004, but money-or rather lack of it, may be a stumbling block.

At the end of the first year for the Latino program, she said, participants and focus groups were asked to evaluate and make suggestions as to what worked and what didn't to help better plan their spending.

For the past nine months, Helmreich said, CU staff has studied the Somali culture and participated in diversity training to prepare for what they hope will be an influx of new members.

Vice President Dan Brown has even spent many hours touring Somali neighborhoods, visiting their shops, dining at their restaurants and taking note of their customs, some of which are very different from Americans.

For example, "Their Muslim religion forbids the paying of interest on loans and the earning of dividends on shares," she said. "And, while religious orthodoxy varies, most Somalis follow the doctrine by using non-interest bearing accounts and occasionally taking out small loans, which they pay back rapidly."

The Typical Profile

Typically, she said, they will borrow from people in their own community before they go to outside sources. They have even created their own business community with shops to sell sheer fabric from India, leather goods and food distinctive to their culture.

Part of the reason, said CEO Greg Kidwell, is mistrust.

"Generally speaking, many immigrants come to the United States with perceptions of mistrust regarding financial institutions due to experiences that they have faced in their native countries."

He said the first step to earning that trust is providing them with education so they understand what to expect from their financial providers.

A respected member of the Somali community, Shakir Farrah, 29, has been the link pulling the two entities together. Farrah, a Somali refugee, has mastered two languages and the American way of life.

He told CU officials, "Eye contact, smiles and positive body language is the best way to build trust with these new credit union members."

Helmreich said the OCUL and Foundation also have the challenge of convincing CU managers and their boards that these new faces of America are future credit union members.

"This is not any different than a 100 years ago when the Irish came to escape famine and the Germans came to escape Hitler," she said. "This time, they're just coming from Somalia."

Farrah said he plans to remain in Ohio with his family, but would like his daughter to learn about the Somali country of her ancestors.

As with many cultures, first generation Somalis tend to stick to their own ways, Helmreich said. "They work hard and save and the most important thing to them is family."

Their children, however, tend to move toward American ways, including its language and its spending habits. "There is sort of a denial there," she said.

"By the third generation, they are totally American and totally forget where their roots are," she said. "And, like most Americans, they keep on spending."

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