East African business owners face added barriers to aid

Sulekha Ibrahim
Sulekha Ibrahim’s Whittier mental health clinic, Healing Path Wellness Services, was burned down during the civil unrest. Photo by Becca Most

Zainab Hussein sat on a chair under rows of rolled-up fabrics, carpets and colorful dresses, looking out into the quiet hallways of the Karmel Mall. It was 1 p.m., and she’d been sitting in her shop for six hours, but she still hadn’t had any customers.

Before the pandemic, Hussein said, she would often see more than 100 customers each day, some driving in from other states to shop for traditional clothing and fabrics. Now, about a month after the Whittier mall fully reopened, Hussein, like many other East African business owners, is worried about her livelihood during the pandemic and uncertain about where to find relief.

Although she applied for several small business loans, Hussein said she is not eligible for some because she is her business’s sole employee. With her income essentially vanished, she has needed to solicit help from her family to keep the shop open and has taken a second job as a custodian at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport to make ends meet.

“It’s very hard,” she said. “I used to earn enough to manage daily life, and now, nothing.”

While nearly all businesses have been hard-hit by the pandemic in recent months, East African business owners are facing language and cultural barriers that make it especially difficult to find loans and navigate bureaucracies. The unrest following George Floyd’s killing has brought an added burden, with East African immigrants owning many of the worst damaged businesses on Lake Street.

These business owners say it’s hard to see a future without financial assistance. And with partisan gridlock and a slow government response, many say they are falling through the cracks.

After closing during the pandemic’s first months, Sulekha Ibrahim reopened her mental health and community clinic, Healing Path Well- ness Services, on May 26, the day after Floyd was killed. The Whittier clinic offered therapy services, wellness classes and culturally sensitive care to many people of color, immigrants and refugees in South Minneapolis.

On May 28, Ibrahim’s clinic was vandalized and destroyed. Everything was stolen, and much of what remains is ash.

“To have that space on Lake Street, it was needed. People would come together and see providers that looked like them … feel that their culture and their traditions are well received and respected,” she said. “And then for it to
be destroyed and burned down, it was just devastating for everybody.”

Although Ibrahim considers herself one of the luckier business owners — she’s raised more than $95,000 on GoFundMe — she said she’s only about halfway to the amount it will take to rebuild.

Ibrahim said misinformation about the number of grants business owners can apply for and what they need to qualify has made many worried or anxious. Some applications take a lot of time and energy, and even for the few who have been able to receive grants, the funding is often not enough. page8image450560192

Listening session

During a June 25 community listening session at the Jigjiga Business Center in South Minneapolis, around 60 East African business owners in the area shared their experiences with elected offi- cials and city and state staffers. Many expressed disappointment at the government’s response to protecting their businesses and said they felt left behind in aid and assistance.

For Kaltuma Hassan, owner of Bismillah grocery store in the Phillips neighborhood, the night of May 28 was especially difficult.

While she was trying to board up her shop, a couple of men cornered her behind her grocery store. They beat and robbed her at gunpoint, and the next day, when her shop was broken into again, her security camera showed five people dousing the building in gasoline before burning it down. When she saw the shop the next morning, she said, she felt like her “entire life had collapsed.”

Without her main source of income, Hassan said, it has been difficult to pay her bills and she cannot send money to her family back home in Somalia.

“We need the government to support us, maybe at least to rebuild our building and finance us to start the business again,” she said. ‘That’s our only hope.”

Suad Hassan, who owns the Ayeeyo Childcare Center on Lake Street, said she stood outside the building with her family during the unrest, trying to protect it. Despite being unarmed and facing people with guns, Hassan stood guard for two weeks, begging looters and rioters not to destroy her building.

“I called 911 so many times I cannot believe it,” she said. “I felt helpless. I felt very disappointed that our government watched us in pain.”

Hassan said she hadn’t received any guidelines on how to reopen safely and wasn’t sure how she could even feel safe to reopen when every building on her block was boarded up or damaged.

“A sense of security has been lost,” she said. “I want to say to people that represent us, that take our votes, that asked us to vote every single day, to stand up for us and help us.”

Loan and grant process

State Rep. Hodan Hassan, whose district includes many businesses damaged on Lake Street, said she is currently working to introduce more grants and loans to help her constituents rebuild.

More than 1,000 buildings were damaged during the unrest citywide and 53 were destroyed. Staff estimate that the cost of the damage could top $500 million, with much of that expense left uncovered by insurance.

The pandemic and civil unrest have made navi- gating insurance and loan processes even more challenging, especially for business owners who speak English as a second language, said Hassan. Some of the seminars or workshops set up by the city are operating via Skype or other online platforms, which some do not have access to or know how to navigate. Others have never applied for a grant before and don’t know where to start.

The state’s $30 million emergency loan program, Hassan said, didn’t even scratch the surface in providing help to business owners in her district.

“Most people that got those loans were people who had their ducks in a row, people who had accountants, who had their paperwork ready, and the loans were gone just like that,” she said. “They didn’t even stand a chance. And many, when you talk to them about record keeping, they had a shoebox in their house. … They can’t afford to hire accountants to be on their payroll.”

Some East African business owners emigrated to the United States with a mistrust of the government and others don’t want to take out a loan for fear of high interest rates, Hassan said. This can make it difficult to even foster a conversation about available loan or grant options, she said.

“No one wants another loan, and no one wants another burden,” she said. “And today, many people are not sure whether [their business is] going to make it or not. We’re still in the middle of COVID-19.”

Zoe Thiel, who heads the city’s Small Business Team, said for businesses damaged by the civil unrest, much of the current available programs and aid is within the private sector. The Lake Street Council has raised about $7.5 million to help businesses and nonprofits build and reopen, and community organizations like the African Development Center in Cedar-Riverside have been a huge asset to the city, she said.

Community partners have been helping business owners report small business loss, file insurance claims, fill out loan applications, request property tax relief and navigate other forms of aid. Thiel said city staff can direct people to these partners but are not allowed to help citizens fill out loan or grant applications.

“If folks are not sure where to start or what’s available, we are happy to work with them to navigate the systems,” she said. “The message I want people to have is that even if it’s a tough environment, they’re not alone in it.”