Laura Berger Abbas mothers, mentors Somali youth through nonprofit Our Helpers

3 min read

Some may know Laura Berger Abbas as a volunteer, leader or mentor, but to groups of Somali youths in central Ohio, she is simply “Hooyo.”

That’s the Somali word for “mom,” and she’s embodied that title through her work as chief operating officer with Our Helpers, a local nonprofit group that helps immigrants and refugees gain access to housing, financial assistance and other essential resources. 

“Whatever you need, whenever you need it,” she said, “I’m there like a mom.”

Abbas volunteered with Our Helpers before becoming COO

Founded in 2012 by Hodan Mohammed, who was born in Somalia, Our Helpers is a woman-led, Columbus-based nonprofit that offers a variety of programs and services for youths and adults alike. Berger Abbas, a 50-year-old Gahanna resident, volunteered with the organization for three years before being hired as chief operating officer in 2020 when Mohammed took a leave of absence.

“I was just excited to work with a women-led organization and also the first Somali woman-led organization,” Berger Abbas said. “It was very exciting to think about those things and keeping this nonprofit thriving.”

She worked with the organization through July of this year, before stepping down to begin work as associate development director at the refugee resettlement agency Us Together.

At Our Helpers, Berger Abbas’s duties included maintaining the housing stability program for immigrant adults, working on event programming, general administration and finance. 

When Jibril Omar met Berger Abbas—whom he calls Mama Lulu—at a local mosque, he could tell she was passionate about Somali-based immigration. After participating in the program and being mentored by Berger Abbas for three years, he began working with Our Helpers as an employment counselor in 2021 before beginning work as a medical assistant.

“Mama Lulu, she is the hooyo of the Somali community, because when you look at her she looks nothing like Somalis, but it’s her heart and her willingness to gravitate to the youth,” Omar said of Berger Abbas, who is white.

Our Light features workshops and activities to help Somali youths

Friday evenings at Our Helpers are reserved for Our Light, a basketball and wellness program for Somali youths ages 17 to 24. The program was created three years ago at a time Berger Abbas said the Somali community was hit particularly hard by crime. 

“It was a time when there were seven homicides in the Somali community in one summer,” she said.

The Our Light program features workshops and activities to address drug abuse, violence and other issues that impact the Somali community. 

“I think mentorship just evolved out of basketball,” she said. “(The boys) saw me there, they saw me caring for them, they saw me, you know, as accessible to talk to and … it just sort of evolved from there.”

The most important part in her role as a mentor, she said, is her ability to listen. Berger Abbas has the phone numbers of each of the 100 young men in the program, and she said they call her when they need someone to talk to. She also uses surveys to get their thoughts and concerns in a more formal way.

“They can tell me what is the most important thing in their life right now. Is it finding a job? Is it safety? You know, are they worried about the police?” she said. “I don’t make assumptions on what they need.”

Omar said it’s her heart and her ability to connect one-on-one with each person she meets that makes Berger Abbas more than a supervisor or mentor. 

“Hooyo is a strong word in our community, based on a mother,” he said. “Laura took care of us like she was our mom.”

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