Somali Immigrants Face Discrimination in Columbus

December 26, 2000

Source: The Columbus Dispatch

On December 26, 2000, The Columbus Dispatch reported that in Columbus "ignorance of religious or ethnic customs" sometimes leads to discrimination against immigrants, in particular against Somali immmigrants, whose numbers have "soared to 14,000 citywide, from about 40 in 1996." Columbus has America's second-largest Somali population. Like other ethnic groups before them, Somali residents must travel a path they see as "pockmarked by fear, ignorance, unfair treatment and a lack of respect for their customs." Hassan Omar, the president of the Somali Association of Ohio, said, "We feel targeted. Our businesses have been robbed and burglarized." City Hall reports that every day it investigates "40 charges of bias based on age, gender, race, sexual preference, religion or ethnicity." Statewide, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission examines 3,729 charges of racial bias per year. "Omar said three Columbus companies have fired Somalis over prayer practices this year." According to the article, "an immigrant's religion, clothing and newness to the English language sometimes can be innocent accomplices in discrimination." Columbus was once principally a German town, but now has 45,000 Latinos, 25,000 Asians, and 1,200 Mauritanians. "The 2,000 students who attend the English-as-a-second-language program in the Columbus Public Schools speak more than 60 languages and dialects. About 500,000 Ohioans do not speak English." The immigrants are drawn to Columbus by "friends, family, jobs, affordable housing and a comparatively steady economic base." The city's Community Relations Commission is the "designated troubleshooter on discrimination complaints:" it "suggests ways to prevent biased practices within the workplace and between neighbors" and it "enforces the city's civil-rights code, which outlaws discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodation because of race, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex or sexual orientation." Only "when the commission can't resolve a conflict or finds a law broken" does it hand "the case over to the city attorney's offices for prosecution." Somali immigrants say the commission acts as as "an employment broker and diplomat to the immigrant community."