Immigrants get computer training

Cedar-Riverside residents can learn technology skills at a local center.

by Lolla Mohammed Nur

Abdiaziz Mohamed is a Somali refugee who is unemployed, canâÄôt speak fluent English and doesnâÄôt have the basic computer skills most people take for granted. Despite this, the Cedar-Riverside resident has used the Brian Coyle Community Center computer lab almost every day for six months looking for jobs online, hoping his search will land him a job and make him more engaged with technology. Mohamed isnâÄôt the only member of his community grappling with basic technology skills. The number of Cedar-Riverside residents trying to acquire basic typing and Internet skills has increased since an AmeriCorps program called the Community Technology Empowerment Program was introduced to the neighborhood in September. At least 80 percent of the programâÄôs participants are East African immigrants. The program helps residents create an e-mail account as well as learn how to use a computer and programs like Microsoft Word, Excel and Internet Explorer. Participants also receive help with résumés and job searching. Ravi Reddi is a University of Minnesota junior majoring in political science and an AmeriCorps employee at the center. He monitors the lab and provides free one-on-one computer training sessions to adults. He said at least 40 residents, mostly in their 20s, regularly attend training. âÄúThatâÄôs not including people who come in with the goals of getting employment,âÄù he said. âÄúMost do not have a computer at home, so this is their chance to use a computer, period.âÄù Even 75-year-olds come in to ask how to turn on a computer and use Internet Explorer, he said. âÄúItâÄôs definitely really humbling. This really means a lot more to them than to college students who just type up papers all the time,âÄù he said. âÄúTo see people of that age getting excited over things we take for granted is an interesting experience.âÄù Reddi said the goal of the program is to first make residents comfortable with computers. âÄúA lot of the people we have donâÄôt even have an e-mail address,âÄù he said. âÄúA lot of people who do use the Internet donâÄôt know it can be used for purchases and other constructive purposes, like online applications.âÄù A challenge has been to keep the pool of current participants interested. âÄúA lot of people have so much on their plate, so itâÄôs hard to bring them back two or three times to consistently use the computer lab,âÄù Reddi said. The computer lab has been part of the center since the late 1990s, but it was always outdated, Youth Program Manager Abdirahman Mukhtar said. Even the 12 computers Wilson Library donated to the center two years ago were old, slow and didnâÄôt have recent Microsoft programs. âÄúBut that was the first time we had flat-screen computers,âÄù Mukhtar laughed. âÄúThis isnâÄôt just about helping someone find a job; itâÄôs all about access âĦ This is the only resource they have to print, do e-mail or do homework.âÄù The center purchased 16 brand new computers two weeks ago and has had free wireless Internet for little more than a month. Center Director Jennifer Blevins said the change has been long awaited. âÄúThe first day we got the computers, every computer had at least two people âĦ We were excited,âÄù she said. Mohamed appreciates the opportunities the new computers have offered him, he said. âÄúI came here to find a job, [and now] itâÄôs easy to look for a job and learn something new,âÄù he said. âÄúWeâÄôre very happy âĦ ItâÄôs very important to our community.âÄù E-Democracy forum Steven Clift is the executive director of the online forum, which he calls a âÄúhybrid between a good old-fashioned e-mail list and a good old social network.âÄù Seven neighborhoods, including Cedar-Riverside, use the forum. âÄúThe goal is to create a community forum where users can ask questions, criticize local initiatives and try to create a neighborhood vibe,âÄù said Reddi, who has been helping Clift to recruit new members. âÄúThe problem is, the forum is only as strong and useful as the number of the people who use it, which is why outreach is important,âÄù he said. The Cedar-Riverside forum, which is only one year old, hasnâÄôt been as active as others, but Clift said itâÄôs too early to judge its success. âÄúThe next crucial stage is to bring it to life in the next six months,âÄù he said. In the past two weeks, about 50 new members have joined the forum, bringing the total to more than 200 users. About half of those are of East African descent, Clift said. âÄúCedar Riverside is an incredibly diverse and dynamic community,âÄù he said. âÄúYou might have a Somali dinner at Brian Coyle and a completely different crowd at Acadia Cafe. In a virtual neighborhood, weâÄôll seek to break the ice between the diverse communities so they can learn about each other as they exchange information and stories.âÄù He said heâÄôd like to have more people of Korean, Vietnamese and Hispanic descent on the forum. âÄúI donâÄôt know of anyone in the country thatâÄôs working to create these local public social networks in low-income, diverse, immigrant areas,âÄù Clift said. âÄúThis is really important work that should be replicated around the city and around this country.âÄù