Sudanese meeting to seek community center and stronger ties to Austin

Published 10:19 am Tuesday, October 14, 2014

By Trey Mewes, Austin Daily Herald

AUSTIN — Sudanese and community leaders hope to strengthen ties in Austin at a community meeting this Sunday, which could include discussions about a future Sudanese community center.

Sudanese residents have discussed starting a potential community center for the past several years to help area refugees navigate life in Austin. While some organizations like Austin Public Schools have worked with Sudanese parents on educational issues, cultural gaps in understanding have been difficult for some families to cross.

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“We have a problem with our children who are falling behind in education,” said Chief Brown Bol, one of the activists behind the Sudanese community meeting.

Bol said many families can struggle to get used to life in Minnesota without help learning English and the processes behind many things residents can take for granted. While parents can rely on their children who speak English at times, Bol said the Sudanese want to become more engaged through helping themselves.

To that end, Bol and members from several of the Sudanese tribes in Austin — which include the Nuer, Dinka, Anuak and Acholi — hope to build better bridges with community leaders to get their concerns heard, from law enforcement issues and jobs to education and transportation worries.

“A big part of that is lack of communication and lack of understanding on where everybody is,” said Kolloh Nimley, a community program specialist with the Council on Black Minnesotans. The council is assisting Sudanese volunteers to set up the meeting and invite community leaders.

While the Welcome Center of Austin has helped refugees and immigrants settle into the community for more than a decade, Welcome Center staff said black residents haven’t sought as many services from the nonprofit in recent years compared to white, Latino and Asian residents.

Mayor Tom Stiehm said he has heard similar discussions from Sudanese residents in the past and hopes more Sudanese volunteers get involved with the community. Yet while he would support a new community center that Sudanese residents could use, Stiehm believes city officials would be hesitant to offer help for a designated Sudanese center.

“We’re not going to spend money on something that’s specific to any group,” he said.

Still, Stiehm said there’s “absolutely a need for” a place that can offer Sudanese services.

Stiehm, state Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, and other leaders will attend the meeting at 3:30 p.m. Sunday inside the Austin Public Library.