When Amin Omar saw the cases of COVID-19 rising in the Somali community where he lives on St. Paul’s east side, he felt that something needed to be done. Amin first turned to his staff at the Horn of Africa Community of USA, and they then reached out to officials at the state Health Department and Ramsey County.
The result was an extensive outreach and educational campaign leading to a community testing program taking place this month at Highwood Hills Elementary School. In two days of testing, Dec. 1 and Dec. 15, 168 people have come in, Amin said. There will be one final day of testing on Dec. 29.
“In order for us to save our community, we were the ones who knocked on the doors,” said Amin, HACU’s executive director. The effort made heavy use of participants in the nonprofit’s youth programs, and volunteers such as Deeq Isse, a father of two who registered community members arriving for the tests.
Deeq said he volunteered to take down data including a person’s name, date of birth, household size and contact information because of the effect COVID-19 has had on his neighbors, some of whom have gotten very ill with the virus. At least one family member has died.
Some of those who came to get tested were worried, particularly about the possibility of losing work time and earnings if they test positive. “When you get past those questions and help them understand, you see the person willingly participate in the testing after accepting its value,” Deeq said.
Though HACU has been officially around only since 2018, its leaders have organized events in the broader East African community on the east side of Saint Paul for a decade, including unity iftars and creating workforce referrals.
Deeq credits the turnout at the testing site to the work he and other volunteers did in the weeks before.
Abdullahi Khalif, director of youth programs, saw a perfect opportunity to involve young people who were missing out on social and academic opportunities because of the pandemic. They ended up doing most of the door-knocking at apartment complexes, halal butcher shops, mosques, and restaurants in the neighborhood. “When we first got this opportunity to serve the community, the first thing that came to my mind was, ‘How do we get the youth involved?,’’’ he said. “We sponsored a basketball team, but their tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus.”
Abdi Gure, HACU financial director, said that besides the value of the community service, using young people was also a way of informing their families at home about the virus, and encouraging youth to take it seriously themselves.
Leading up to their first day of testing, HACU staff and volunteers knocked on 1,500 doors. “When we go door knocking, we also educate the community on how to protect themselves and protect others. Wear a face mask, continue to social distance, and to go and get tested,” Abdi said.
In some cases, the door-knockers said they found people who were violating health protocols dealing with the virus. “We found a couple of households that told us they had COVID,” said Abdi. “They were close together and had their neighbors visiting them.” They thought that wearing a mask was enough of a precaution.
“The other thing that we’re struggling with is getting these households who test positive to quarantine,” Amin said. Many in the community avoid getting tested for fear of testing positive and being out of work for two weeks while in quarantine. With the lack of resources such as childcare and unemployment benefits, many continue about their life without knowing whether they’re carrying the virus.
“If I were to contract the virus, I’d have to sit out of work,” Deeq said. “It would put me in a position of needing help, and there’s a lot of people in that circumstance.”
According to Abdi, HACU is looking for ways to make it easier for people to stay home primarily by providing them staple foods to cook at home. “If I don’t have food at home, how can you tell me not to leave for 14 days in quarantine?” he said. “It’s inevitable that they come out looking for groceries or knock on their neighbors’ door for oil and go to another for sugar.”
Fatuma Aden, another resident of the east side, shares that concern for her community as members try to navigate this pandemic.
“Somalis are having a tough time with this virus,” she said, adding that they are people who show mercy to each other in times of trouble. When they receive news of a family member or friend falling ill to the virus, they have an impulse to visit and console them, she said. “Say someone might be found to test positive, or they’re sick without knowing it’s COVID, people will say, ‘Oh Allah, if I don’t go to see so and so, we’re all going to die alone.’”
Since the beginning of the pandemic Fatuma has quarantined herself three times when she felt symptoms, but only was tested the last time—and was negative. According to Fatuma, she and others in the community face several barriers to staving off this virus, among them is the language barrier.
Although there are materials translated into Somali and other languages, elderly members of the community may not have Internet access or ways for that literature to arrive at their doorstep.
“The language is difficult for people. and they’re not being convinced. We need people to give us information directly,” she said—like the HACU volunteers. “We need our own people to provide us with information and call us to action.”