Somali health fair confronts cultural barriers to care

Safiyah Ismail, second from left, a nurse at Seattle Children's answers questions during a gathering of members of the Somali Health Board. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Safiyah Ismail, second from left, a nurse at Seattle Children’s answers questions during a gathering of members of the Somali Health Board. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

It started with the historic windstorm of December 2006, when power outages across the region resulted in four deaths and multiple hospitalizations in the immigrant community.

“Just like back home, they turned the stove on because it was too cold,” says Ahmed Ali, pharmacy manager for a Walgreens in Edgewood. “Unfortunately, it led to the loss of life.”

He explains that some non-English-speaking immigrants didn’t receive warnings about the dangers of carbon-monoxide poisoning when gas stoves are lit for heat, or when generators and barbecues are used indoors.

A few years later the swine-flu panic hit. Public-health officials translated material about vaccinations against the flu into Somali, but used the term “pig flu.” That translation raised concerns over religious prohibitions against consuming pork, and many in the largely Muslim community avoided vaccinations.

After that, many in the Somali-American community were convinced that something had to be done.

“We decided, ‘Why don’t we have a group that talks about and solves these issues?’” says Ali, who has since become executive director of the Somali Health Board, an organization of health professionals who serve as a liaison between health systems and the local Somali community.

Since its official founding in 2012, the health board has taken on community concerns over a connection between autism and vaccines by engaging mosques and religious leaders in education campaigns. They’ve also helped health-care providers offer medications that don’t contain pork-based gelatin, started a program for culturally sensitive prenatal care and mentored young Somali Americans looking to enter health fields.

In addition, they’ve organized the annual “Somali Health Fairs,” where health professionals come to areas with large Somali populations to conduct free screenings and provide health information. This year’s fair is scheduled for Saturday at the New Holly housing development in the Rainier Valley.

Ali says the community has seen a rise of chronic diseases recently, so preventive care and regular checkups are a focus of this year’s fair. They’ll offer blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol screenings, as well as a dental bus, nutritional education and mammography services.

Back in Somalia, you go to the doctor when you are sick, after you’ve exhausted all other resources out there. After you’ve tried traditional medicine, you’ve tried home remedies, you’ve tried your neighbor’s medicine,” says Ali, who adds that screeners last year sent two people to the emergency room after their blood-sugar levels measured at dangerous levels. “Then you go to the doctor … It’s the last resort.”

In addition to increasing access to physical-health services, the Somali Health Board also hopes to focus more on mental health this year — something especially important in a population that may have cultural stigmas regarding mental illness.

“I myself, when I had a baby, I had postpartum depression, but people didn’t really talk about it,” says Idil Danan, a volunteer with the Somali Health Board who is helping get the word out about the health fair in New Holly.

Danan says she asked her doctor about her symptoms and found help, but that many others she knows might not feel comfortable doing so.

“[People say] we’re Muslims, we don’t have that,” says Danan. “[I tell them] ‘This is something normal … it’s called postpartum, and it’s going to go away.’ ”

To help address this issue and other pre- and postnatal care issues, the Somali Health Board has helped found a Somali Centering Pregnancy group, which will also be featured at the fair. It’s an opportunity for women to come together in small groups — joined by a health professional — to talk about their experiences, get information and build relationships with each other.

Danan says it is programs with this type of linguistic and cultural relevance that really help her community. She’s excited for her neighbors and friends, who may feel alienated by doctors or confused by the medical system, to attend this weekend’s fair.

“These people will be speaking their language,” says Danan with excitement. “They won’t feel different, they’ll just feel welcome.”

The third annual Somali Health Fair will run 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, at the New Holly Gathering Hall. For more information, visit the Somali Health Board’s Facebook page.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at
Sarah Stuteville

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