Fardousa Jama: Bridge Builder
When Fardousa Jama’s father suggested that she establish a nonprofit organization, she hesitated.
Along with her cousin, Fardousa had brought together a group of young women and began a collaborative effort to raise money for their Mankato masjid. They called themselves the Barwaaqo Girls, borrowing a Somali word that means “abundance” or “prosperity.”
Although the group was well-known in their community, Fardousa was uncertain about taking on the responsibility of running an organization. However, as she says with warm reflection and tempered faith, “God definitely had a different plan.”
Later that month, a family with several young children arrived in town. They had been traveling for weeks and felt tremendous relief to reach their final destination. But after dropping them off at the steps of the mosque, their driver suddenly took off with the family’s belongings.
Seeing this family in a strange town with nothing to their name, not even a change of clothes, the Barwaaqo Girls stepped in. Fardousa remembers, “I kept telling my dad, we need to do something. I don’t know where they’re going to sleep tonight.”
She became the family’s personal advocate, visiting local organizations and government agencies to seek assistance on their behalf. The apathy that she encountered alarmed her. Every person she spoke with seemed reluctant to reach out and offer support to a family so clearly in need.
“Every place we went that day asked who our leaders were,” Fardousa says. “I just kept thinking to myself: if I knew, I wouldn’t be sitting in your office. I wouldn’t be begging for your help.”
She returned home and said to her dad: “If people are going to take me seriously once I have a nonprofit, then let’s do it.”
Seated in her spacious office as she recalls that turning point, with sparkling eyes and the brightest smile, it’s difficult to imagine that Fardousa wasn’t destined to do this work. God intended for Fardousa to become a leader in her community and her city, and He instilled her with the drive and the determination to do so.
A Voice for the Voiceless
Fardousa’s zigzagged journey toward the Barwaaqo Girls and the organization that would bear their name began years before when she found herself, like the first family she assisted, without anywhere to sleep.
After discovering that her hours at work had been cut drastically — and then coming home to an impassioned disagreement with her father — Fardousa had no choice but to start spending nights in her car.
“You’d never think that Fardousa Jama was homeless,” she says.
She’s right. Even as she remembers this painful piece of her past, Fardousa carries herself with confidence strengthened through the struggle that she weathered.
Each morning Fardousa would drive to the Salvation Army to take a shower and put on a smile. She felt that disclosing her situation would shame her family — and she had inherited her father’s sense of pride — so she continued to refuse the assistance that staff at the Salvation Army offered.
But when she ran out of gas money to stay warm one night, Fardousa gave in and approached a staff member. “This lady — I think she was my guardian angel,” says Fardousa. “She wasn’t a Muslim, but she came to my aid. She helped me when I felt like no one else was there.”
After listening to Fardousa’s story, the staff member wrote her a check that allowed her to afford gas and groceries until her hours were increased again. “I promised myself that every penny that she spent on me, I would pay back one way or another when I could,” says Fardousa.
And Fardousa upheld her promise. When she found herself back on her feet a year later, she returned to the Salvation Army and started volunteering. She worked shifts at the organization’s front desk and interpreted for Somali immigrants with limited proficiency in English.
As Fardousa reciprocated the investment that the Salvation Army made in her success, she was surprised by the impact that her volunteer experience had on her own spiritual growth. “To be a Muslim at a Christian organization,” she says, “I realized that that’s what interfaith looks like.”
And although the organization is Christian-affiliated, Fardousa found herself deepening her own faith. “I felt like I was doing all this good, but I had strayed from the religion,” she says. “That’s when I put my hijab back on.”
She’s careful to clarify that covering was her own decision — “I wanted to express more than just my beauty and make people focus on my personality and my intellect. I put the hijab back on for myself.”
Along with returning to her faith, Fardousa reconnected with her Somali community through the Salvation Army. “It opened my eyes to the need that was happening in my community, because I saw a lot of immigrants who were coming in for assistance,” she explains.
And Fardousa realized that she had a responsibility to uplift these members of her community. “My religion does not prevent me from helping my fellow Muslims,” she explains. “In fact, it encourages us to. It made me say that I’m going to be the voice for the voiceless in my community.”
A Chain of Hope
Although Fardousa grasped the urgency of addressing the needs of the Mankato Somali community, she wanted to first make sure that she adequately understood those needs.
“I decided that I needed to slow down and survey the community,” says Fardousa, whose survey also laid the groundwork for the Somali Health Literacy Project through the Mayo Clinic Health System. “We went knocking on doors and asking if they wanted an office that represented them. We collected over 400 signatures in favor of our idea.”
But those signatures were only the beginning. Since so many had indicated their support for a Somali-centered organization, Fardousa wanted to confirm that it would reflect the situations of these community members.
“We went back and sat down with every single person on our list and asked what services they’d like to see. We talked to them as individuals instead of assuming what they needed,” explains Fardousa.
Soon patterns started to emerge. Children of aging parents wanted elder care. Students wanted help with homework assignments. Young adults wanted support in their job search. Recent immigrants wanted guidance in citizenship issues. Families wanted assistance with housing.
With pride, Fardousa says, “The list of things that we provide now is exactly what they said they needed.”
Somali Community Barwaaqo Organization opened in 2014, just four months after Fardousa told her father that she was finally ready to run a nonprofit. The organization’s mission is to ensure that Somali and other immigrant families undergo a smooth transition process of settling in the community and attaining self-sustainability. All services are available free of charge, thanks in part to financial support from Fardousa’s father.
“Since the beginning, what we’ve stood for is integrity and honesty,” Fardousa says. “Those are the two pillars that we’ve built this organization on.”
The values and the hard work that Fardousa and her father bring to Barwaaqo Organization continue to shine bright. One client, Fardousa remembers, said to her: “You give us hope. Keep being a link on that chain of hope.”
Today, Barwaaqo Organization provides assistance to approximately 500 individuals annually. This year, the organization received funding from Youthprise and Wells Fargo to help around 150 young people ages 14-24 with job placement. Fardousa herself advocates for 30 adults who don’t speak English and acts as an interpreter for their social workers.
“We’re that bridge, that connector,” says Fardousa. “I’m proud of how we’re connecting them with the basic necessities and the resources to live a dignified life.”
A Seat at the Table
Fardousa felt the effects of her work on individuals and families in her community. But she was growing frustrated with the systemic barriers that they continued to encounter.
“For me it was like, if I’m going to be part of this change, then I need to have a seat at the table,” she explains. “And we have conversations about Islamophobia, but we’re not actually talking to the people who are affected by it. That’s what a lot of Americans do — we talk about the issue, but we don’t talk to those whose lives are impacted every day.”
To that end, Fardousa organized several events intended to build bridges between communities in Mankato, such as “Break the Fast with Your Somali Neighbor.” She says, “I want it to be normal for our kids to be friends with a Mohammed instead of just a Mary or a John. And that’s the point of our events.” With an average attendance of 500 — in a town whose population stays well below 50,000 — it’s safe to say that these events are already shifting the norm.
In addition to bringing together Mankato citizens from diverse backgrounds, Fardousa has also included local businesses. It’s important, she believes, for them to “open up to people who wouldn’t typically walk through their doors.” Next year she plans to recruit businesses that are immigrant-owned.
But Fardousa wants to take her natural leadership skills to the next level — which is why she’s chosen to run for Mankato City Council this year. Fardousa’s platform focuses on her potential to “bring a unique experience and a fresh perspective to city leadership.” Her dedication to her community and her uncanny ability to unite different populations in her city has earned her a steady segment of citizens excited for change.
Although her campaign has connected Fardousa with supportive neighbors, not everyone has welcomed her to the table. While door-knocking, “we had one person who shut the door in our faces, one person who spit at us, and one person who cursed at us,” she says.
That’s not enough to stop her — “I will tell you what’s on my mind, and I will speak up with things are wrong.” It’s who Fardousa is. It’s how God made her.
“If you asked me back in 2009 if this is what I planned for my life, I would have said no. No way!” laughs Fardousa. Not in her wildest dreams did she see herself becoming a political trailblazer, a community advocate, a social entrepreneur.
But after all, “the best way to make Allah laugh at me is to make my own plans,” she smiles.
“It’s been miracle after miracle after miracle,” says Fardousa. “And when I go home and lie on my bed at night, I know that I did my best to make my community better, to move humanity forward.”