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Annual health fair addresses Somali community’s concerns through culturally competent preventative care

Two people sitting at a table in front of a sign that says "pharmacy"
Photo credit: Somali Health Board


“I talked to a lot of elders at the health fair. They understandably have trust issues, and there’s a lot of confusion that is surrounded when it comes to receiving healthcare in the United States. This event gives them the ability to share their concerns and learn about the healthcare system and discuss health issues directly concerning the Somali community,” said Mohamed Shidane, Policy and Systems Engagement Manager at Somali Health Board (SHB).

Mohamed is one of the organizers of the Somali Health Fair, now in its seventh year, which was put on by SHB on Aug. 17 at New Holly Gathering Hall in Seattle. 

The Somali community’s concerns derives from what many refugees experience when trying to integrate into society. Somali refugees often experience racial discrimination, which impact housing, employment, and legal status. Compounded by language and cultural barriers, the spread of misinformation, or the perceived inability to have access to healthcare, SHB and its annual health fair was a much-needed entity to address these very concerns.

“What really stood out to me about this year’s fair was the enthusiasm brought on by the youth. There were many young people and professionals that attended and volunteered at the health fair. It became something that many young people were looking forward to, so that was very encouraging,” said Mohamed. 

In fact, the event, which usually takes place in the fall, moved to summer time so that it coincided with the time of the year that young people were going back to school. SHB and its health fair are not just looking to get the adults involved regarding health issues, but are also looking to get the youth engaged as well. This is about empowering the community as a whole, on all levels.

Health concerns surrounding the Somali community

SHB and its annual health fair not only works to provide health services and inform people about navigating the healthcare system but addresses health issues directly affecting the Somali community. 

Some of these issues include the hesitancy to vaccinate children, the rise of chronic diseases due to lack of preventive screenings, and concerns surrounding medications that contain pork-based gelatin (tied to religious restrictions against consuming pork). 

SHB puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of approaching this with cultural competency and patience. In a Seattle Times article, Ahmed Ali, the Executive Director of SHB and a Doctor of Pharmacy, states that many in the Somali American community were concerned about these trends and something needed to be done. 

A dentist cleaning a child's teeth while two other children watch
Photo Credit: Somali Health Board

“Back in Somalia, you go to the doctor when you are sick, after you’ve exhausted all other resources out there. After you’ve tried traditional medicine, you’ve tried home remedies, you’ve tried your neighbor’s medicine, then you got to the doctor … it’s the last resort,” said Ahmed. That’s when Ahmed decided to establish a group that talks about and solves these issues. 

SHB was then established, in 2012, to serve as a liaison between the healthcare system and the local Somali community. In addition, SHB works with governmental entities and partners to help shape healthcare systems and policy, works with healthcare organizations in community-based participatory research, and provides programs centered around family care. 

Shortly after the creation of SHB, the Somali Health Fair soon followed to tackle these specific health concerns.

Somali Health Fair and its continued growth

“We had about 900 people registered for the event. Over 1,000 people attended the health fair this year. Last year, we had about 315. It was a massive success,” shared Mohamed. In addition to the event growing each year, much of the large uptick in this year’s numbers was attributed to SHB’s partners Seattle Housing Authority and Neighborhood House, which resulted in greater outreach. 

The health fair provides an opportunity for healthcare professionals to come to areas with large Somali populations to conduct free screenings and provide health information in a culturally conscious manner. There were more than 100 volunteers and vendors that donated their time and services, which included blood pressure, cholesterol, Hep C, and HIV screenings, vision and hearing exams, pediatric services, CPR and EMS education, nutrition education, and dental care. 

In regards to feedback from this year’s event, Mohamed states that the dental van was incredibly popular. SHB is currently looking to increase to multiple vans at next year’s health fair and even in talks to schedule and provide dental vans to the Somali community several times throughout the year. He states that having ease of access to medical, vision, and dental care means a lot to the community.

Another takeaway from this year was to build greater capacity and be better organized to account for the higher number of attendees. This would require a more efficient patient intake process, improved scheduling system, and perhaps more volunteers.

While refining flow and building capacity is important, the health fair is also constantly working to make this event more family friendly. This year, SHB is putting further emphasis on the youth. 

“This year, we provided helmet fitting for kids and gave out more than 200 bike helmets. In addition, we gave out more than 400 backpacks to kids. There were even opportunities for the younger generation to interact with prospective employers. All of these additions help to bring together and energize the community,” said Mohamed.

Working across generations for a better future

The Somali Health Fair has already provided invaluable resources to its community, through health services, activities, and informational discussions in a culturally sensitive and competent approach. The organization continually strives to inform, engage, empower, and educate. 

They are tweaking processes, adding services and activities, and, more importantly, expanding their outreach, both in their partnerships and demographics. Already looking forward to next year’s fair, SHB is perhaps really starting to see the fruits of its labor. 

We are now seeing the younger generation reaching out and engaging to raise awareness within the Somali community and ultimately helping to bring the community together and working toward positive health outcomes.