After closing down last year, a service program aimed at helping immigrants from West Africa is back providing food, legal aid, computer classes and clothes out of a church in Brooklyn Center.
Edmund Ocansey is a 51-year-old Ghanaian immigrant and airline worker who founded West African Family Community Services (WAFCS) in 2015. He said that while other agencies in the Twin Cities help East Africans, there aren’t as many that target their services to West Africans.
All WAFCS services are run by volunteers from space in Brooklyn United Methodist Church on Brooklyn Boulevard and Noble Avenue N. Ocansey said that while the agency caters primarily to West Africans, it will help others in need as well.
“Our goal is to help everybody to be self-sufficient,” Ocansey said.
Ocansey said people have already dropped in from around the metro area and word is still spreading about this month’s re-opening.
WAFCS’ food shelf includes West African staple foods such as black-eyed peas and fufu — a starchy dish often made with cassava or plantains that Ocansey compared to American mashed potatoes. He said the food is donated from The Food Group, a hunger relief organization based in New Hope. Having West African staple foods available to recent immigrants is especially important to help them adjust, he said.
“If you can eat something that back-home, it’s like, hey, you feel good!” Ocansey said.
Food and clothing donations are accepted at the church.
Other services offered through WAFCS include a closet of donated clothes that people can take, computer classes that are offered every Wednesday and Thursday from 10-11:30 a.m. and free legal aid offered through the Volunteer Lawyers Network on the first Friday of the month from 2-4 p.m.
Ocansey said the legal aid is offered in private rooms at the church, where people can seek help in all legal matters, including family, criminal and immigration law. He said recent immigrants are unfamiliar with U.S. law. For instance, in Ghana, Ocansey said, it’s common for people to drink while driving.
“People don’t know their rights,” he said. “We get into a lot of legal issues.”
Ocansey said the goals of the computer classes, which draw about 10 people a week, are to teach participants how to use computers so that they can move into higher-paying jobs and don’t have to work long hours away from their families.
The computer classes are particularly popular and many have asked for more. Ocansey said he is seeking volunteers to teach more classes.
WAFCS shut down last fall when the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, the group through which the program was initially run, got new leadership. A WAFCS news release from shortly after the shutdown says that the Council of Churches made the decision to stop the program after building a “Center for Families,” which was intended to house WAFCS. Ocansey said both he and those who used the services were heartbroken when the program was shuttered.
“Honestly, it was a shock,” Ocansey said. “I thought the board would find a way to raise more money.”
WAFCS got a $6,000 Community Development Block Grant this year from Brooklyn Park. Brooklyn United Methodist Church has since taken over as the nonprofit that runs WAFCS. Ocansey said he hopes the program can eventually form a nonprofit entity of its own.
Ocansey says he’d like to start evening tutoring classes for students who need help with their homework or are preparing to go to college. He wants to offer a social program for the elderly and would also like to raise money for a freezer so that WAFCS can offer frozen foods.
He said the goal is to help people become more independent. “Nobody’s going to help you if you don’t help yourself,” Ocansey said.