St. Peter, Minn. – Savory scents waft through the hallway of the community center in this Nicollet County town some 70 miles west of the Twin Cities.

Follow your nose to a spacious meeting room where East African favorites are being dished up: rice with beef, noodles, potatoes and pastries stuffed with beef, lentils and vegetables.

Twice a month, elders from the area's East African community gather here for a shared halal meal and a program that can range from citizenship to weaving to winter preparedness.

The goal is to help break the social isolation experienced by members of the older immigrant population, many of whom speak little English and stay home to care for grandchildren while younger adults in the family are at work.

Another goal is to offer education, mainly focused on health but including other aspects of community life.

"We know that people come together over food," said Leah Mahoney, the Minnesota Department of Health's statewide health improvement coordinator for four southern counties, including Nicollet. "We want it to be a blend of health education around diabetes and other chronic diseases. We also want to keep it fun."

But, she added, "it all starts with the meal, people having the opportunity to speak to others."

About 20 people were on hand last week, including Abdi Matan, who helped organize the program through the nonprofit Horn of Africa Aid and Rehabilitation Action Network. Matan came to St. Peter six years ago after working in Somalia for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He also worked for the U.N. in refugee camps in Somalia and Kenya.

"Minnesota is the next home for Somalis," he said with a big grin. "We have really enjoyed this program for socialization."

Somali elders, he said, often have a hard time adjusting to their new home.

"In our culture, the elderly people are who we seek wisdom from," Matan said, and they're losing that status as the younger generations assimilate into American culture.

"They are eager [to attend the meal] and they are very happy about the program," he added. "Every time, we get new faces."

Mohamed Omar Ali, 73, was a herdsman in Somalia. He arrived in St. Peter about five years ago.

"I am part of this program and I come to enjoy it," he said as Matan interpreted. "I enjoy the health education and the socializing."

Hibo Mohamed, 23, is the program coordinator. She makes home visits to East African families throughout the area, including Mankato and North Mankato, to spread the word about the community meal.

"They call me and say, 'I would like to get out of the house, I would like to meet people,' " Mohamed said. "One woman hadn't left her house in over a year. But she came last time."

Mahoney said she believes this is the first program of its kind in rural Minnesota and hopes that other communities with East African populations will take notice. Support for the program has come from the state Health Department, as well as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, the city of St. Peter and the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging.

In the future, Matan hopes to add mental health services to the menu.

"In our community, many people are reluctant to share their mental health issues," he said, adding that many Somalis suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after living through a civil war and in refugee camps.

"I learn a lot," said Hani Awjama, a resident since 2016. "I tell other people about it."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402