Thursday, April 29, 2010

Census concerns local Somali leaders

Saturday, March 27, 2010 2:51 AM

Several local Somali leaders worry that too many of their community members won't be counted in this year's census - resulting in less political clout and federal money for social services.

"We need to know the real numbers of Somalis in Columbus because our population is growing and has a powerful impact on the community," said Hawa Siad, executive director of the Somali Women & Children's Alliance.

Siad, along with representatives of more than a half-dozen other Columbus Somali organizations, held a news conference yesterday at the Global Mall on the North Side to discuss their concerns about the census.

They complained that the U.S. Census Bureau hasn't done enough to educate the Somali community, especially recent immigrants, about why it is important to fill out the census forms.

"We're very enthusiastic to have our community counted, but what the government has to understand is that it is taboo in our culture to ask these kinds of questions," said Mohamed Ahmed, vice president of the African Refugee & Educational Community Services.

Census officials said they have spent more than a year presenting workshops to Columbus' Somali community, explaining why the census is done and how it should be filled out.

"In the last 11 days, I've done 48 presentations," said Mussa Farah, a Columbus Somali leader who the Census Bureau hired in December 2008 to make sure people in his community fill out the forms.

Farah said he thinks the bureau is doing its best to reach various immigrant and ethnic groups.

"Yes, I am a census worker, but I'm also a Somali and the last thing I want is for the Somali community to be undercounted," he said.

Estimates of the Somali population in Franklin County have ranged from as low as 15,000 to as high as 80,000.

An accurate count helps government agencies funnel funds for social services - such as English classes, job programs and work training - to specific groups.

The Somali groups also complained that the census form isn't in their language.

Nationally, the 2010 census is available in five languages other than English: Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Russian and Vietnamese. Assistance guides also are available in 59 languages, including a Somali dialect, said Carol Hector-Harris, a local census spokeswoman.

She said those guides have been distributed to several local Somali organizations, including the Women & Children's Alliance, which is one of more than a dozen questionnaire-assistance centers.

Census workers have been stationed at each of the assistance centers to answer people's questions, Hector-Harris said.

The Somali groups also said the Census Bureau hasn't hired any local Somalis to talk to individuals who haven't returned their forms. Hector-Harris said that's because the agency just this week starting hiring local individuals to go door to door in various communities.

"Most of the forms were mailed out March 15 and should be returned by April 1, what we call 'census day.' We won't know where to send people until after that date," she said.

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