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Safi Osman gives new refugees her cell number and tells them to call her at any time if they need help. - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Safi Osman gives new refugees her cell number and tells them to call her at any time if they need help.



When refugees come to the United States, they aren't coming as delegates or visitors. They've often lost family, friends, homes, and the lives they once lived.

They come to new places where they don't know anybody and where they may not know the language. They also don't know where to find grocery stores and hospitals, or how to get their children into school.

These are people who have endured incredible hardship, and they need help.

Sadiya Omar, herself a former Somali refugee, saw those needs when she arrived in Rochester. In 2002, she founded the Somali Community of Western New York to provide services and education to Somali refugees. The organization has since evolved into Refugees Helping Refugees, and it now serves people from any country, with the goal of helping them become self-sufficient and rebuild their lives. (Omar received a Jefferson Award for public service in 2016.)

As the organization's name implies, much of its core, all-volunteer staff comes from refugee backgrounds. Among them is Safi Osman, a former Somali refugee who gives out her cell phone number to refugees and tells them to call at any time if they need help, even if it's the middle of the night.

Recently, Osman translated for a newly arrived Somali refugee who had to go to a local emergency room. Osman stayed with the woman through the evening and into the early morning, while other volunteers cared for the woman's children.

Another day, Osman went with two people to Monroe County's social services offices so they could regain the Medicaid coverage they had just lost.

Osman often helps with transportation and translation, though when she first began with Refugees Helping Refugees she taught sewing (that work-skills program is led by other volunteers now). The organization teaches English, computer skills, and cooking skills; helps with case management and job searches; and holds weekly activities for seniors.

Osman came here in 1996 from a refugee camp in Kenya, where she shared a tent with her five children and their father. They didn't get mats or clothing, everything was dirty, and there was no privacy. Her sister, who was already in the United States, helped arrange for the family to come to the US, and Osman says that like many refugees, she felt safe when she arrived.

But she also had to adjust to a new place, though she was able to start working and building a new life soon after she arrived. She feels that it's important to help other refugees, who have needs similar to the ones she had, in whatever ways she can.

"We can't ignore it, because we came to the United States as refugees," Osman says, "and we know how difficult a life refugees have."