Somali health-care center opens on south side

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The center will help the Somali community with issues ranging from tuberculosis to culturally acceptable birth control.

Qaaxo – or tuberculosis, as English-speakers know it – has a profound stigma attached to it in Somali culture; those afflicted are often shunned by friends and family.

Part of the job of a new health center in the Twin Cities will be to educate the Somali population about the realities of tuberculosis and other illnesses and diseases that affect their community.

The Center for Somali Health officially opens today at the Minnesota Church Center on the 100 block of Franklin Avenue in south Minneapolis. The center is an initiative begun by Minnesota International Health Volunteers, a local nonprofit that has collaborated with Somali community groups on health issues since 2000.

The health center will consolidate seven programs already in existence. The programs range from a survey on the prevalence of tobacco use to the distribution of family-planning information.

MIHV executive director Diana DuBois said the health center has a four-pronged approach: guiding recent immigrants through the U.S. medical system, training medical professionals, researching health problems in the community and providing educational materials on commonly misunderstood medical problems.

Because of their refugee status, most Somali immigrants receive health insurance through the government, but for cultural and language-related reasons, they often have trouble accessing it, DuBois said.

The program is funded primarily by grants, including one from the Minnesota Department of Health.

According to a 2007 report by the United Nations Refugee Agency, the 1991 Somali civil war displaced almost half a million people.

Although the 2000 census put the Somali population in Minnesota at around 30,000, some community members estimate it to be as high as 70,000, a population that center employees said trails other Minnesota groups in ability to access medical care.

The center, which will employ six community health workers, is unique because it informs Somalis of medical options in ways consistent with their cultural values and customs, DuBois said.

One example of this approach is the Somali Child Spacing Program, a family-planning program that uses information about types of birth control, like fertility beads, that traditional Somalis see as more acceptable.

“We let them know about all the options that are available,” DuBois said.

Anisa Esse, a Somali-American health worker and recent University alumna, said the health center will address taboo topics in ways that don’t alienate the community or prevent them from seeking medical help.

“We’re not in the business of trying to break cultural norms,” she said. “We don’t want to preach, we want to talk about things that are important to the community.”

Esse said a video the center produced on cancer awareness addressed female circumcision – sometimes called female genital mutilation – which is still practiced in some rural areas of Somalia.

“A lot of women are scared to go to get a cervical cancer screening because of the tools,” Esse said. “In the video, we say ‘If you are a woman who has been cut, don’t be afraid.’ “

Esse said her biculturalism allows her to act as a guide between cultures.

“The fact that I understand American culture and that I’ve lived here more than half my life gives me a window to articulate the issues and struggles of our community to the bigger community,” she said.

DuBois said she hopes the health center will expand into areas like mental health as funding increases.

Sahra Qaxiye, treasurer of the University’s Somali Student Association, said there was a need for the health center in the Somali community, especially for older people.

“There’s a lot of people who are recent immigrants to America,” Qaxiye said. “They don’t know their way around or the language. My grandma came here four years ago, and if she didn’t have us she’d be lost.”

Esse said the health center will also help Minnesotans better understand Somali culture.

“The Center for Somali Health will be a great resource for the community,” Esse said, “not only the Somali community, but the larger culture in general.”

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