Khadija Ali has seen the interpreting side of her language business in Minneapolis drastically decline amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The local governments, universities and health care clinics that used to hire her staff aren't calling as much as they reduce face-to-face interactions.
But Ali says she's as busy as ever now, as chairwoman of a new task force to help Somali-American business owners trying to survive during the coronavirus pandemic. She has fielded a flood of phone calls from entrepreneurs who don't know how they'll pay the rent — even if it is deferred. They aren't collecting any revenue for their already struggling businesses and worry that the state's new emergency business loan program doesn't go far enough.
"My community is very entrepreneurial," said Ali, president and CEO of Global Language Connections. "Now it's all being shut down."
The African immigrant and refugee community is banding together in a scramble to keep small businesses afloat, ensure that elders have enough food and spread the word to those who don't speak English about virus symptoms and the importance of physical distancing. Higher rates of poverty, larger families to support and strong entrepreneurial drives bring added challenges.
After the pandemic shutdown, Afro Deli owner Abdirahman Kahin and volunteers have delivered meals to the elderly and disabled in the Somali and Oromo communities and recently partnered with Meals on Wheels to expand the deli's reach. But he's worried about other African immigrant-owned businesses that may not be able to ride out the shutdown, especially because some were already struggling.
"Without relief, I'm pretty much sure there are a lot of people right now thinking to close," Kahin said.
Brooklyn Park resident Sarah Njoku had to close her clothing boutique to comply with the shutdown but decided that as a seamstress, she could use some of her fabric to make hundreds of masks to distribute to African immigrants. When she had trouble finding elastic at stores, she switched to using rubber bands.
"There were no people coming to the store so then I sat down and I was thinking, 'What can I do now?' " Njoku said. "So that's when I decided to make myself productive and busy, and help the community too."
She immigrated from Uganda more than 20 years ago, but her relatives in Uganda and Nigeria still depend on her financial contributions. Njoku worries about how to support them, especially because those countries are undergoing their own lockdowns.
"If we can't help ourselves here, we cannot help our people back home too," Njoku said.
The nonprofit Isuroon, which aids Somali-American women, is trying to help families take advantage of their down time. That includes urging families to take training on parenting and financial literacy, as well as completing the U.S. census. The biggest need is people seeking help filing for unemployment compensation. So far they are managing well, said executive director Fartun Weli, but she's not sure what will happen if the situation lasts for a long time.
"People with an immigrant-refugee background that came from crisis — they're treating this as another crisis," Weli said.
Dr. Abdi Jama said that because many Somali-Americans have large families and live in high-density areas such as Cedar-Riverside, it can be a challenge for them to follow physical distancing recommendations.
"It's a very close-knit community and obviously very social community," said Jama, who works at M Health Fairview. "Especially when people are sick, the community likes to visit the sick and wants to stay connected. With that close-knit-ness comes the potential for spread, so really our focus is to make sure that the community is aware of … how we can prevent that."
As program manager for the nonprofit African Career, Education & Resource (ACER), Denise Butler juggles calls from worried business owners. Those include a home-based entrepreneur who sells African sauces at farmers markets and had just landed a major university as a client. Another caller just took out a $10,000 loan to open a hair salon and now has no money coming in to make rent and her loan payment. A business owner who rents out venues for special events is now in the red after people sought refunds amid the crackdown on social gatherings.
Butler has tried to help African immigrant business owners fill out forms for a new no-interest loan program through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) for businesses that were ordered closed down as a result of COVID-19. But many say they can't put up the required 20% collateral, lack required financial records, have not been operating long enough to demonstrate financial viability, or are not included on the list of business types that qualify, such as restaurants and theaters.
Butler said she's heard from one of the lenders working with the state that many microbusinesses, which have less than $250,000 in annual sales, won't qualify for help.
DEED Deputy Commissioner Kevin McKinnon said Friday that the agency is operating under the authority of Walz's executive orders and the Legislature's approval of $30 million for small-business loans. The department is working with about two dozen lenders in that program, he noted, including those with experience working with the Somali-American population.
Ali said she has also fielded calls from African immigrants across Minnesota, as well as shopkeepers in Minneapolis' Somali malls, raising concerns that their business types were excluded from the list of businesses that qualify for emergency loans. Many own stores that sell clothing, electronics, money transfers and travel services.
She's heard that Somali clothing stores are seeing winter inventory languish unsold, while summer inventory is slow to reach Minnesota from suppliers in China, New York and Los Angeles.
Ali said she sent a letter to DEED urging the agency to look into the barriers and find a way to ensure that the loans will benefit everyone they are intended to support.
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210