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As the surge of East African refugees to Minnesota continues to influence the state's politics, schools and workforce, a Somali-led organization devoted to helping the new wave of immigrants has taken on more importance.

The nonprofit is called Isuroon, a Somali word that means "women who take care of themselves financially, emotionally and socially," reflecting the group's objective. It's led by Fartun Weli, a Somali American woman who launched the grassroots group in her small apartment in Hopkins 13 years ago.

Today, the organization has grown to a staff of 38, many of whom, like Weli, were once refugees. It provides a wide range of services to Somali and East African women and their families, helping them with problematic landlords, legal dilemmas and health concerns.

Isuroon's programs include mental health counseling and financial literacy, as well as English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. It helps refugees navigate the complexities of a new culture, acts as a liaison to local schools and sponsors programs on drugs and violence.

In the New Year, Isuroon plans to open a women's health clinic, unveil a program to help women with business startups and provide doula services for expecting and new mothers. Ten women have been trained for the doula program.

"It is not about handouts, it's about a hand-up," Weli said in a recent interview. "That is why Isuroon is unique."

Isuroon has become a reliable one-stop shop for members of the East African community who are seeking help, said Michael Luseni. He serves as principal of the Minneapolis Public School District's Career and Technical Education program and was principal at Heritage Academy, a Minneapolis high school where 98% of the students are East Africans.

"Fartun and her organization have been doing a lot of good and important work for the community for a long time," said Ahmed Sheikomar Ibrahim, the imam at Umatul Islam Center in south Minneapolis that temporarily houses Isuroon's halal food shelf, one of the few in the state.

Earlier this year, the Legislature voted to allocate $3 million to renovate Isuroon's E. Lake Street offices. Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, introduced Weli to a Senate committee during appropriation deliberations. "Everybody knows Fartun Weli," he said.

That may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but Weli has made her mark.

Breaking barriers

Born in Somalia 56 years ago, Weli was 8 when her father died. He served in the military and left a young widowed mother to care for their six children, one of whom was disabled and suffered from polio.

Weli moved to Saudi Arabia in 1989 and got a job drawing blood at a local hospital, sending money back to her family in Somalia. Seeking more opportunities, she immigrated to California in 1999, but she soon found herself on the verge of becoming homeless.

Two cousins in Minneapolis urged her to join them and sent her $130 for a plane ticket. When the airfare increased she took a Greyhound bus to Minneapolis, not realizing the trip would take three days. She spent her last $8 on a large bottle of 7-Up and a bag of potato chips.

"I was dead broke," she said. "I was hungry. Even now, after more than 22 years, I can't stand 7-Up or chips."

Weli got a job at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park drawing blood and took ESL classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Seeing fellow students struggle to balance school and work, she tried to help them manage their time.

She had trouble with learning how to write in English, but a professor at the school who saw her potential told her not to worry; he had watched her help other students.

"You'll be the greatest navigator ever for your people," she recalls him telling her. Weli went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees from two online universities.

Weli got married in 2011 but struggled to conceive. After several failed attempts with the help of medications, she was diagnosed with premature ovarian failure, a rare condition that prevented her from giving birth.

"It's horrible. I wanted to be a mom and here I couldn't," she said, adding that she felt ostracized by her community: "If you can't have babies, you're seen as a nobody."

So she took to Somali YouTube channels to talk about female infertility, including her own.

"Everyone judged me because I couldn't bear children," Weli said. "I started educating the community on how hurtful it is … [Women] can be and do more than make babies."

Gaining recognition

In 2010, Weli launched Isuroon with the aim of helping women with fertility issues by, in part, connecting them to medical resources. She continued her educational lectures, emphasizing women's rights, and spoke out against female genital cutting — a cultural practice often performed on young girls in some African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries that has no medical benefits and causes pain and health complications.

Responding to Weli's message, many women reached out to share their personal struggles.

"What I noticed was everyone was in crisis," Weli said. "Why? We came from [a country where there was a] civil war. There was family separation. There was a lack of culturally specific services."

In 2012, Weli moved Isuroon to free office space at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Edina. Using a $50,000 grant from the Otto Bremer Trust, she hired consultants for the organization.

As its programming has increased, Isuroon has moved four times. It temporarily operates from offices in Roseville while its permanent home on E. Lake Street at 16th Avenue S. is undergoing renovation. Isuroon also has offices in Burnsville and a small food shelf at Highwood Hills School in St. Paul as well as its main food shelf at Umatul Islam mosque.

Isuroon's operating expenses in 2022 came to $1.6 million. Its income included $380,000 in federal, state, county and city grants, and nearly $1 million in foundation grants and gifts.

Hoffman said he first learned of Isuroon in 2012, when Weli lobbied lawmakers for culturally specific maternal health services. Isuroon's expansion into many other areas since then, he said, "blows me away."

Weli "is a hard worker, she cares about the community, she cares about her work," said Rep. Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis. "She is sometimes a hardliner because she will tell people the truth."

Hoffman and Hassan were chief authors of the bill to allocate funds for the renovation of Isuroon's E. Lake Street offices.

Empowering the community

On a recent Friday morning, Fadumo Mohamed, 54, of Burnsville, showed up at Isuroon's Burnsville office to get an application for MNsure so she could obtain health insurance for her children.

"I come here for many things, to help me with housing and food," she said. "I don't read or write, and I need their help."

A few hours later, eight tenants hoping to challenge a problematic Minneapolis landlord gathered in a conference room at Isuroon's Roseville office to meet with one of the group's lawyers, Shahd Abukhdeir. They said their building needed repairs, lacked security and had a washer and dryer that didn't work. "We're fed up," one tenant said.

Larry McDonough, a prominent Twin Cities housing attorney who works part-time for Isuroon, lauded the organization's combination of social services and legal support. Isuroon helped 45 families avoid eviction in 2023.

Despite its successes, Isuroon faces challenges. Most of the funding it receives goes for programs it offers rather than bolstering staff salaries and benefits, Weli said. "Everybody thinks we made it, and they may want to pull the plug on us," she said.

On a recent Wednesday at Isuroon's food shelf at Umatul Islam, Weli helped Asha Ahmed, Mohamud Abdi and Leyla Ahmed fill food bags with pasta, flour, olive oil and rice. Abdi, Isuroon's intake coordinator, said they serve about 600 families a month.

"In America, we shouldn't have to be doing this," Weli said.

Star Tribune staff librarian John Wareham contributed to this story.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the St. Paul school where Isuroon operates a small food shelf.