New Leader Q&A: Abdul Artan, New American Development Center
“Assisting the community is in my blood.” From South Africa to the Twin Cities, Abdul Artan has been working to improve the lives of Somali and East African immigrants for decades. Recently, he brought his dynamic energy and deep experience to Alliance member organization, New American Development Center, as a community organizer. In the latest edition of our New Leader Q&A series, we spoke with Artan about his background and passion for organizing.
Even on the phone, Abdul Artan’s compassionate spirit and fierce dedication to his community are apparent. Weaving a sense of urgency, optimism and love, a conversation with Artan is immediately uplifting.
Born and raised in Somalia, Artan was a refugee of unrest in his home country. “When the Somali civil war broke out, there was nowhere to turn,” he says. “We had to move to have some safety and economic prosperity and South Africa was the only country by then that had that capacity. A number of people had gone there before me and gave me the chance to join them.”
For 10 years, he was deeply embedded in the Somali immigrant community in South Africa, providing support for others. “The East African community were new immigrants in South Africa and I, by chance, was able to speak the languages — particularly English, Arabic and Swahili — so I could assist and also represent community members with the authorities and responsible organizations in any kind of concern or need.”
Discrimination against Somalis wasn’t uncommon, he says. “Because we look different, some would claim that Somalis are not African. They would say the same thing about us being Muslims, since the majority of Sub-Sahara Africans are not Muslims. Whenever there was an issue with the government, the community was looting the businesses of immigrants because we were the weaker link.”
But Artan’s goal wasn’t simply to bridge the language gaps; his hope was to build lasting connections and community power. “I have the blood of activism in me,” he says. “I don’t want to see people suffering. Any way I can change a situation, I will jump in and help to the best of my knowledge. I got some training from the Nelson Mandela Foundation on community dialogue, so I had skills to bring together communities with major differences to listen closely to each other and live together.”
One way he brought his own community together was through education, creating a Muslim cultural school that grew to more than 200 children and 20 teachers by the time he departed. “It’s still continuing today and I cannot imagine the number of graduates who have finished that school,” he says. “My own kids went through that school and when we came here, they were already leaders.”
When his family moved to Rochester seven years ago, he became a teacher with that same orientation to building youth leadership and ensuring students felt a sense of connection to get them through graduation. Two years later, he shifted his work to Somali Community Resettlement Services which brought him to Minneapolis to support newly arrived immigrants not only in the Twin Cities but Faribault, St. Cloud and Rochester, as well. “We were doing assessments and making sure people knew the do’s and the don’ts in this country,” he says. “We were attaching them to the resources they needed, like enrolling in school, learning the language, and housing resources and welfare.”
It didn’t take long for Artan to get connected to the work of New American Development Center — an Alliance member organization that responds to the needs, concerns, and changing circumstances in the lives of the East African/Somali immigrant community in Minnesota — and recently took a position as a community organizer. While the pandemic has made the work more challenging, Artan has been able to engage with residents over the phone and on Zoom, and is working actively to address issues facing Somali renters.
“The abuse of renters by landlords goes unnoticed and needs to be addressed, particularly for people who don’t understand the language,” he says. “The apartments in these big buildings are not taken care of, and do not get proper maintenance. The landlords don’t care; they just collect money. And Somalis are large families but housing here is only one- and two-bedroom units; that’s another problem.”
Artan’s activism doesn’t end with NADC. He’s also part of ISAIAH’s Muslim Coalition, which is working to bring directly impacted communities to the table to identify and address inequities in education, healthcare, housing and more at the state and locals levels. “For instance, opioids are a problem in our community, and particularly Somali youngsters have started using now,” he says. “But that gets no attention when you look at the statistics and, at the state capitol, money assigned to the opioid crisis goes to hospitals and big corporations. None of it is going to communities with the real need. The resources need to go to the people who are suffering.”
For Artan, working in direct solidarity with those communities is his calling. “I want to be a change agent and I want to leave a legacy,” he says. “I’m not a person who keeps to himself and I have the energy to go the extra mile. I’m not saying I’m perfect. I need training. But I have the tools — and I’m a learner, a listener, a leader.”