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Bundled services help immigrants move toward the American Dream

Fadumo Shirelle arrived in St. Paul eight years ago, a 17-year-old refugee from Somalia who spoke no English and felt nervous about starting over in a strange land.

Now she’s a community organizer with the St. Paul Park District working to improve the Central Corridor district by creating a new park out of a parking lot and establishing an East African market. She’s married with two small children and studies nursing at St. Paul College. 

“If you want to be successful, you need to go to college,” says Shirelle, who hopes eventually to become a midwife.

Her husband, Muhyidin Abdulkadir, who owned a tailor shop in Africa before immigrating to the United States, found at first work cleaning airplane cabins but now uses his sewing skills at a better paying job for an industrial fabric manufacturer.

building photo
Courtesy of Twin Cities LISC
Skyline Tower in ST. Paul

Their story offers evidence that the American Dream is alive and well, even in an era of economic difficulties. But success does not happen automatically, even for people who stand out as ambitious and hardworking. Shirelle and Abdulkadir have received continuing support from the Financial Opportunity Center at St. Paul’s Skyline Tower, a 504-unit high rise apartment building where they live just off University Avenue.

The building is owned and managed by Common Bond, an innovative nonprofit company that operates 95 housing developments with 5,400 affordable apartments and townhomes in 47 cities throughout the Upper Midwest. Each Common Bond community offers residents — who earn on average $19,000 a year — classes and one-on-one counseling about school, employment, finances and health and wellness. The mission of the organization, which was founded in 1971 by the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, is to “help families and seniors break out of poverty.”

The Financial Opportunity Center and other programs at Skyline Tower helped Shirelle earn a high school diploma, get a job as a home-health-care aide, apply to college and find her current position with the St. Paul Park District. 

“I first got help with my school homework, and then about finding a job and getting into college. I’ve learned how to manage my finances and next year my son will start in the pre-kindergarten program here.”

‘Our job is … to help them get ahead’

Claudia Wasserman, Skyline Tower’s employment program manager, says, “Our job is not just to help people get jobs, but to help them get ahead — to get a promotion, to get a job with good benefits, to manage their family budget, to establish credit, to open a savings account.” 

That’s why the Financial Opportunity Center at Skyline Tower (and 11 other Common Bond communities throughout the Twin Cities) pairs employment counseling with personal financial coaching and programs that let residents know about public assistance programs for which they are eligible.

“We find that people who get help on all three fronts at the same time do better, ” Wasserman says pointing to a bulletin board emblazoned with stars, each one showcasing a job landed recently by a Skyline Tower resident: FedEx handler, USPS handler, resident assistant at Concordia University, bank teller at Wells Fargo, teacher’s aide in the St. Paul Schools, sales associate at Target, rental-car agent, child-care provider, security guard.

“Bundling services like this helps people achieve economic stability,” explains Chris Wiger, program officer at the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), which helped establish Financial Opportunities Centers at Common Bond and four other metro organizations (Emerge in North Minneapolis, Lutheran Social Services on the East Side of St. Paul, Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio on the East Side of St. Paul and South Minneapolis, Project for Pride in Living in South Minneapolis). The Twin Cities is one of 30 areas nationally where LISC works to aid residents of distressed communities find transformative solutions to their problems.

Wiger notes, “Our early data is showing that clients who receive these services together are seeing improvements in net income, in net worth, in their credit scores and in job retention.”  In addition to funding, LISC supports the Financial Opportunities Center with training for staff members and technical assistance in managing the data flow that charts clients’ progress.

Ayan Hussein, Employment and Financial Coach at Skyline Tower, describes her work this way: “ We encourage everyone to use their networks to find out about jobs and then help them with cover letters, résumés, and filling out applications.”

Role-playing to prep for interviews

She also sharpens residents’ interview skills with role-playing exercises, teaches financial-literacy classes in partnership with Wells Fargo, and directs people to other services at Skyline Tower, which includes everything from a computer lab and English classes to help with taxes and financial-aid forms for colleges.

“I tell them I know they can do it,” Hussein says, “because I did it.”

She arrived in the Twin Cities from Ethiopia when she was 18 and lived for a while at Skyline Tower, where she says, “the classes and counseling services helped me a lot.” She graduated from high school and St. Paul College and studied at the University of Minnesota. Her fluency in English, Somali and the Oromo and Amharic languages of Ethiopia proves valuable in her work at Skyline Tower, where most of the residents are refugees from Africa. Hussein has now worked there for six years and recently bought a house near White Bear Avenue in St. Paul, where she lives with her husband and two children. 

Jay Walljasper specializes in writing about cities, travel, and social issues.  He is author of “The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons,” and is the editor of On the Commons. A version of this article appeared on the LISC website.

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