Health Literacy and Somali Families

Close-up view of people's hands with cell phones

Sirad Shirdon

A few months ago, I met with a vibrant Somali mother who runs a community organization which serves newly arrived refugees. She expressed concerns regarding the lack of understanding newcomers had regarding their children’s medical conditions. One of her greatest challenges in serving refugees was in improving health literacy. She mentioned that there were many mothers whose children had been diagnosed with developmental disabilities, however, they did not fully understand the diagnoses and the course of treatment. For some time, I have been trying to determine how to best reach out to our Somali mothers. Clinics and hospitals often try their best to accommodate multicultural families by translating informational documents and having interpreters readily available for families who do not speak English. Due to a lack of health information, Somali families are not able to seek treatment for their children.  For families who do seek out treatment, they face additional barriers, including locating childcare for other children while seeking treatment for a child, lack of transportation and language issues. 

So when the mother invited me to speak about developmental disabilities to a group of Somali mothers by phone, I was thrilled! Granted, I was anxious about my ability to [successfully] convey an overview of developmental disabilities, but my excitement trumped any feelings of nervousness I had. The opportunity to converse and interact with a multitude of Somali women – many with children who had a developmental disability (e.g. Autism, Down’s syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder etc.) – is indeed rare.

Somali women have long utilized conference calling for religious instruction: to learn Arabic, the Qur’aan (Islam’s canonical text), and more broadly speaking, the basic tenets of Islam. Since the civil war, which disrupted family networks and scattered family members across various continents, these phone conferences provided women with a way to learn Islam in the comfort of their homes and to establish a social network in what for many was an isolating resettlement experience. Recently, women have begun to incorporate other non-religious topics into their conferences. These phone conferences have expanded to include talks on issues ranging from beauty to alternative medicine.

The tele-conference went well. To an audience of about 110 Somali women, I was able to answer basic questions related to a variety of disabilities and disorders and encouraged referrals when it was appropriate. Is the telephone a panacea for all of the access issues we face in the Somali community? Most definitely not. Nothing can replace a full face to face assessment with a family. And yet, the telephone can be a powerful tool in providing basic health information for hard to reach populations like our Somali mothers, inevitably encouraging our maamooyin to find their way to their primary care doctors if needed.  This medium is not only important for healthcare providers, but educators and other professionals who work with Somalis. I am still at the elementary stages of using Somali tele-conferences as a way to transmit health information to our Somali mothers, and am excited about the opportunities for improving health outcomes for our community at large.

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