City Heights Group Blazes Path For Young Black Men Stuck Inside During Pandemic
It’s a Saturday morning at Chollas Lake, near City Heights. A group of young men are going for a hike around the lake — chatting, joking and just enjoying being around each other. Something that’s been hard for young men during the pandemic, when most social interactions have to be virtual.
Almost a year of social distancing is having a negative impact on the mental health of young men, during such a pivotal time in their social development.
“It’s tough because you don’t really know what people are going through. Before COVID, we were in tune with what the kids were feeling. All the youth, they were open and talkative about their feelings and stuff,” said Abdirizak Ahmed, a youth mentor at United Women of East Africa. The City Heights-based group runs programming for immigrant youth and the children of immigrants, with a special focus on the mental health of young men.
This community has been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ahmed says he can count 10 deaths over the past months in their tight-knit community, and many families are facing hardship after layoffs in a brutal economy.
“Ever since COVID-19, we’ve kind of lost touch with a lot of the young people, some of them don’t have laptops to do Zoom,” Ahmed said. “It’s been tough, a lot of people going through depression, and loss in their family and stuff. It sucks to not be there for them.”
To deal with the stress and grief, some of the young men in the program had an idea — hiking. It was an activity that would allow young men to socialize, get out some energy and do it in a safe, socially distanced way.
“Instead of being at home, we’re exercising at the same time, we get to know each other, there’s newcomers, we’re building that bond,” said Mohamed Musse, one of the young men that helped put together the first hikes. “So, just in case when everything finishes up, when COVID ends, we can still have that friendship. It’s a safe space for us to be with each other.”
Ahmad Mahmuod, who’s been home from college at the University of California, Berkeley, during the pandemic, says that he’s seen the lack of activity, and being stuck at home, taking a toll on mental health.
“It puts a lot of pressure on young men to witness their mothers and fathers and their siblings struggle, you know, face-to-face, 24 hours because they’re at home,” Mahmuod said. “It causes a lot of anxiety, it leads to depression, not being able to be with your brothers, your friends, not able to go to school.”
As Muslims, Mahmuod explains, the interruption of the Friday prayer and getting to hang out afterwards with other young men has really hurt the community.
“They need places where they can ask questions, learn from each other, and just be in brotherhood and be a community,” he said.
Abdiweli Haji is the organization’s program manager. He said once the idea of going on hikes was put out there, young men started to show up by the dozens.
“They’ve been looking for ways to get active. We’re very social young men. In the community, ever since we’ve been locked down in houses, eating, chilling, everyone’s been putting on weight. They’ve been looking forward to it each week,” he said.
The group is trying to upend a stigma associated with hiking and some other outdoor sports — that it’s a white space, and not inclusive for the Black community.
“Two weeks ago when we were going hiking, I invited a lot of my friends and my family. Ninety percent of the response was, ‘why are going to do that, that’s a white people thing,’” said Mahmuod. “I don’t blame them, when you look at recreational activities like hiking, swimming, etc., it was activities that Black people were barred from participating in.”
That’s why the group feels it’s important to show solidarity — trying something new, while being close together, and changing the perception of who hikes in America.
The group has already taken trips Mission Trails Regional Park and is looking to fundraise to be able to hike further outside of the city since transportation is a main barrier between this community and the outdoors. The group is also looking to expand the program beyond just young men and to expand its indoor space and programming once the pandemic resides.
“We’re hoping to get the whole community involved, to get everybody up and active, especially when everyone’s just sitting at home,” Haji said.
You can learn more about the group at the United Women of East Africa’s Instagram page.