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Building a business on the needs of immigrants

Posted on 08 March 2016 by Calvin

Article and photos by MARIA HERD

Midway Immigrant 5294There are approximately 85,700 Somali people in the United States, and nearly one-third of them – about 25,000 – reside in Minnesota, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2010.
Out of the 2,338 total immigrants that came to Minnesota last year, almost 45 percent were from Somalia, reported the Star Tribune in December.

The Midway Immigrant Center, 1910 University Ave., has been assisting immigrants and refugees, the majority of them Somali, for the last three years out of the Midway neighborhood.

Midway Immigrant 5288Manager and founder Dalmar Jama (photo left) says that although the majority of his clients are originally from Somali and West Africa, the center has served immigrants of various ethnicities and continents, who now reside all over the Greater Twin Cities area.

The immigration center offers three primary services to their clients—temporary mailboxes, discounted international flights, and assistance translating documents.

Midway Immigrant 5280There are currently 60 mailboxes available to rent for up to 6 months at a time, and Jama is hoping to add more boxes soon. Most recently, the immigration center started providing the DHL mailing service after Jama recognized his clientele’s need to mail or receive documents internationally.

The Midway Immigrant Center sells plane tickets to people traveling all over the world, but the majority of tickets are for immigrants that are already living in Minnesota visiting their home country, according to Jama.

Immigrants come to the center looking for help with many types of forms ranging from green card loss and renewal to housing and job applications.

“We help them complete the forms electronically, and then we charge a fee depending on the complexity of the service we’re providing,” said Jama.

He estimates that his office assists about seven clients per day.

Building a business
A Somali immigrant himself, Jama worked at an organization that assisted immigrants and refugees in Minneapolis for about six years. Seeing the need for a similar business in Saint Paul, he took entrepreneurship classes through the non-profit Neighborhood Development Center. Then, Jama opened the Midway Immigrant Center in 2012.

Jama said that many people assume his business is connected to the government or that the services are free. However, that is not the case. “We are just here to to pay the bills,” he says.

There are currently just two other full-time employees besides Jama that assist clients; both are Somali immigrants as well.

Jama is enthusiastic about the Midway location, hence the name of his business.

“And it’s getting better all the time,” he said, referring to the new stadium going up in the Midway. Clients have already asked him for help finding employment opportunities at the stadium.

The Midway Immigrant Center opened right during the middle of the light rail construction, he recalled. But with the office located next to the Fairview Avenue Station, many of his clients now take the light rail.

Jama pointed out that the majority of those clients board in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. That area is also sometimes referred to as Little Mogadishu, or Little Somalia, for its large Somali population.

Immigration trends
Jama says that the majority of people who immigrate to Minnesota choose this state because they have a family member here already. However, “the underlying reasons are employment opportunities, housing and safety,” he said. “Minnesota is a good place to live.”

Jama understands that people have their opinions on the refugee crisis, but he says that refugees are immigrating not because they want to, but because they have to.

“There are some people that think we have too many people coming to the U.S.,” he said. “But at the same time, those people had a reason to run. They have to do it because of their safety. When there is killing, when you see that people are dying, or there is a gun pointed at you, you have no option but to run.”

However, Jama says he has not seen as many recent immigrants lately, or those with refugee status come through his doors. Most clients are immigrants that have already been living in Minnesota for awhile.

But in the early 2000’s while working at his previous immigration organization, Jama says he saw many new refugees. He attributes the trend to discontinued family reunification refugee settlements.

Nevertheless, Jama says that he has his hands full until April.

“My busiest time of year is tax season,” he said.


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