How Two Columbus Nonprofits Help New Americans

Immigrants and refugees from Africa often face a difficult transition, navigating disparate cultures and questions of identity.

Chris Gaitten
Hodan Mohammed, founder of Our Helpers

Immigrants and refugees from Africa often face a difficult transition, navigating disparate cultures and questions of identity.

In her first dozen years in Columbus, Hodan Mohammed noticed that people tend to stay within their respective groups—Somalis in their “box,” white people in theirs and so on. In 2017, her nonprofit, Our Helpers, began hosting the annual Somali Cultural Festival to celebrate their heritage while introducing it to the city at large. She wants to create one “unboxed” community. 

Mohammed established Our Helpers in 2012 to serve immigrants and refugees from Central Ohio’s growing Somali population. Dr. Seleshi Asfaw, founder of Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services, says nonprofits like theirs helped Columbus become a welcoming place. Both ETSS and Our Helpers have assisted thousands of new Americans from all over the world, first by addressing fundamental needs like language services and job placement, but also by supporting their integration into the city as they negotiate unfamiliar issues of identity and race. 

Asfaw and his wife started ETSS in 2000 after leaders at their Ethiopian church noticed teenagers dropping out of high school and becoming less interested in traditions. The community’s children often deal with pressure at home to maintain African cultural values while classmates pressure them to dress and talk more like Americans, which can lead to an identity crisis and rifts in the family, Asfaw says. In response, ETSS developed youth cultural enrichment courses, which include traditional dancing, singing, readings in their native languages and teachings about the beauty of their clothing. 

Dr. Seleshi Asfaw, CEO of Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services

For adults, ETSS holds trainings with local companies, government agencies and other nonprofits to introduce them to new Americans and their cultures. The sessions also help immigrants and refugees understand U.S. working environments and how to participate in civic life. It helps them reconcile their divergent cultures. 

The concept of race can also be disorienting and challenging, as identified by the 2018 inaugural report from Ohio’s New African Immigrants Commission. Asfaw offers several reasons. First, most refugees hail from rural areas, where education about American racial division is lacking. There are also varying perspectives on race based on whether a country was colonized. In Ethiopia, which wasn’t, race and skin color are separate concepts, and color doesn’t determine success or social status the way it does in the U.S., Asfaw says. 

Furthermore, when immigrants arrive, their identity comes from their nationality, but they eventually begin to align with African Americans, he says. It’s a tricky balance, which can shift based on the situation. “So when we are with a group of African Americans, we are African Americans,” Asfaw says. “When we are with Ethiopians, we are Ethiopian Americans. When we are in the general public, we are internationals.” 

Mohammed recognizes that her dual identity—Black woman and immigrant woman—can elicit animosity, but she believes the problem stems more from lack of understanding than from hate. Hence, her goal of bringing the community together with the Somali Cultural Festival. In her daily life, she’s always asking new friends if they’ve ever seen a Somali person before or tried their cuisine. Many still haven’t. 

Even if she hasn’t met them yet, more people are seeing her now. In 2019, her image became the focal point of the Graduate hotel’s towering Short North mural project, which honors the immigrant experience. It depicts mythic gods, birds and Mohammed kneeling amid flowers. “To me,” she says, “that mural represents how Columbus is a welcoming city for everybody.”