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Somali Cultural Festival to bring together Somali Ohioans on July 1

Lily Carey
Sunday June 25, 2023

Mohamed Ali and Leebaan Osman, co-founders and organizers of the Somali Cultural Festival in Columbus, have seen thousands of Somali Americans come since they expanded the festival in 2019.

Yet before the festival was established, Ali remembers many Somali Americans in Columbus often traveled as far as Minneapolis to celebrate at other Somali cultural events.

“This is where we live, where we go to school, where we go to work. It does not make sense for my community to go a thousand miles to celebrate with our Somali community,” Ali said.

The Somali Cultural Festival, held annually on the first Saturday of July, fills the need for cultural connection among the local immigrant community. Columbus is the second highest Somali population behind Minneapolis in the U.S., with most estimates ranging from 45,000 to 50,000 Somali residents.

Many Somalis come to the states with no knowledge of English, and face unique challenges with the language barrier, Osman said. The festival offers opportunities for Somali American attendees to learn about local businesses and city resources, which Osman said “creates a bridge” for positive outcomes.

What to know before you go

This year, the Somali Cultural Festival will take place from 3 to 8 p.m. on July 1 in Innis Park, 3000 Innis Rd. Attractions will include local food vendors, live music, businesses, city services and a variety of cultural dance performances, as well as a bounce house and a petting zoo for children.

The event, which Ali said attracts visitors from all over the state and travelers from other states, aims to “revive and retain” the city’s vibrant Somali American community. In previous years, he said attendance has ranged from an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people.

As an immigrant community, Ali said accessing health resources and information can be a challenge, leading to health and socioeconomic disparities among Somalis. The festival will feature tables from Columbus Public Health and other city organizations, and will offer translation services for Somali attendees.

Other services at the festival will include insurance providers, lawyers and car dealers. Helping Somali Americans connect with service providers that they might otherwise struggle to reach is a key goal of the festival, Osman emphasized.

"The community is growing, and we’re trying to create a relationship with businesses and the Somali community," he said.

While the event will center Somali culture, it's open to the public, and Columbus area residents of all backgrounds are encouraged to attend.

“We just want to showcase the rich culture of the Somali community to the broader community of Columbus,” Ali said.

Columbus' Somali community

Since the outbreak of civil war in Somalia in 1990, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country. Today, the majority have settled in the surrounding countries of Kenya, Yemen and Ethiopia.

But as more and more Somalis immigrate to the United States, Columbus is increasingly becoming a center of Somali American culture. According to state government data, over 45,000 Somalis have moved to central Ohio in the past decade.

Osman, who has lived in Columbus since 2004, said he's seen major changes to the Somali American community over the years. As refugees, he said many Somali immigrants start from "the bottom of the bottom," and Osman said he worked for years to learn English and get his GED.

"Now, we are homeowners. We are business owners. I’m paying for my own children’s school lunch. A lot has changed,” he said.

July 1 will also mark Somali Independence Day, which Ali said adds another exciting layer to this year’s festival. The country officially gained independence in 1960. Today, the holiday brings an opportunity to celebrate Soomaalinimo — the idea of Somali national pride as a sense of self and community.

As the festival grows year after year, Ali and Osman, who are both parents, said watching their children enjoy the festival with friends is always a highlight.

For Osman, providing the next generation with opportunities for cultural connection — and socioeconomic advancement — instills a sense of hope.

“My grandma used to say, Rome was not built overnight, and I believe we still have a lot of work to do, to make this community," he said. "But we’re Americans, we’re not going back nowhere. We have our own dignity and our own culture.”

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