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SD Program Teaches Somali Immigrants American Culture, Healthy Eating

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

Imagine coming to this country unable to speak English, and unable to eat much of the food here because of religious dietary restrictions. Add to that the shock of adjusting to a completely different culture. That's what many immigrants from the East African country of Somalia face. A program in City Heights teaches Somali immigrants healthy eating habits and much more.

This isn't your typical cooking class.

A group of Somali women and children are in a kitchen at the City Heights Wellness Center. They stand around a table laden with watermelons, strawberries, and other fruit. Dietician Lisa Turner gives the order.

"Let's get cutting," says Turner.

Participants grab their knives and get to work. Turner wears a white apron. The boys are dressed like typical American kids. The women and young girls wear elaborate head dresses and long, colorful skirts. Today, Turner shows them how to make a fresh fruit parfait with yogurt and nuts. Every now and then, she asks some questions.

"What is vitamin C good for? Your heart, sure. What about vitamin A, do we have anything with vitamin A here today?" says Turner.

People in this cooking class are interested in more than just nutrition. Because they're Muslims, they're forbidden to eat any foods that contain pork or alcohol. Certain additives are avoided because their contents are unknown.

Faduma Jamalulel came to San Diego from Somalia eleven years ago.

"When I first came to America and went to the store, I would get confused because I didn't know what kind of foods I could eat. There are a lot of foods here people can eat, but I can't because of my culture," says Jamalulel.

Jamalulel and her classmates are learning what ingredients are safe, and how to cook healthy meals. But Lisa Turner says the class has morphed into something different.

"We started the class just to try and help them have better nutritional outcomes, cause we have a lot of diabetes, high blood pressure," says Turner. "But what we found is that, with all the food, other things started coming up: health issues, parenting issues, school problems. So it's become sort of a hub for people to come and find answers to things."

Sahra Abdi is the coordinator of the Wellness Center's Hooyo Health Program. She tries to give immigrants the information they're looking for. They often pull her aside after the class is over. Whether it's how to make a doctor's appointment, or how to manage their diabetes, Abdi coaches them through the process.   She says many of her compatriots don't understand why they have to take medication every day. So Abdi tells them.

"The more you don't take the medication, the more your problem goes up," says Abdi. "So health wise, you better take the medication regardless whether today you feel okay or not. Otherwise, you don't know when you're going to be having stroke. So you have to prevent all those problems."

Center director Lisa Vandervort says it's all about introducing the community to the idea of prevention.

"In this culture, that's something very, very foreign to them," says Vandervort.

The center offers a variety of classes. Every other Friday, there's a session on breastfeeding. There's also a biweekly program on infant health. Vandervort says the message is getting across. For example, the center recently hosted an evening with a cardiologist.

"The women were actually asking questions on prevention, such as, what are the signs of a heart attack, how do I know? And we're getting like 50 women in, you know, at one time for these type of services, where two years ago we were lucky to get three," says Vandervort.

Sahra Abdi says the center has become a real support system for the Somali community. And she says it all starts with the cooking class.

"We eat, we sit together, and we kind of feel close to each other," says Abdi. "It makes you feel like, I'm at home. I can share my problems with these other ladies. And we're eating together, we feel like comfortable. And you let go any kind of problems you had."

The Wellness Center gets most of its funding from Scripps Mercy Hospital and Rady Children's Hospital. The California Endowment provides support, too. Over the last two years, more than 17-hundred women and children in City Heights have gotten help at the center.

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