Fartun Ismail is passionate about mentoring immigrant and refugee women and girls. Drawing on her experience of coming to America and facing challenges, Ismail founded the Somali American Women Action Center (SAWAC) in 2017. It creates a community for immigrant and refugee women, providing resources to build skills and confidence, earn an income and gain the respect of their family and community. SAWAC currently serves 48 women in Edina and 76 in neighboring communities.
Ismail was raised by a strong single mother, who was the breadwinner for her family. Emulating her mother’s entrepreneurial efforts, Ismail began teaching sewing classes to help moms struggling with language, childcare and transportation find employment that fits into their lives.
The professions of sewing and tailoring are dominated by men in the Somali culture, but Ismail saw the skill as an ideal fit to give financial independence to women, who may not have the education or language skills to easily join the workforce.
The seamstresses began with a focus on tote bags (dambiil in Somali). Making these bags serve a dual purpose—reducing dependence on plastic or paper bags while providing an income stream for the seamstresses.
This year, Ismail is dedicated to a refugee women-led zero-waste initiative called the Dambiil Challenge. In partnership with Hennepin County, she is educating East African women about how to eliminate single-use plastic bags and how to separate organics for composting.
SAWAC helps many people, and Ismail particularly takes pride in being a role model to underserved young girls. “Young girls look up to me,” Ismail says. “I want them to know that they have a brighter future even in their darkest clouds. I, too, was a refugee girl, who beat the odds. They can be independent and strong women, who can thrive in every sector of life.”
In 2021, The Edina Community Foundation recognized Ismail with a Connecting with Kids Leadership Award for her impact on our community.
Contributed by the Edina Community Foundation.