Shaping Somali youth and family success
Educators working with immigrants and refugees in other states are paying attention to Minnesota, where there is the highest number of refugees per capita in the U.S. Minnesota is also the home of the nation's largest Somali-American community. Nearly all Somalis living in the United States are refugees or children of refugees, having fled a civil war and persecution.
Opening doors through 4-H
All 4-H'ers have the opportunity to learn by doing, and to further the experience by demonstrating their projects.
Visitors attending a national urban Extension conference in the Twin Cities filled a tour to the Minneapolis Cedar-Riverside neighborhood to capacity. Jennifer Skuza, University of Minnesota Extension’s assistant dean for youth development, and Mohamed Farah, an Urban 4-H coordinator and a founder of Ka Joog, brought them to a Somali mall and museum, and to a community center where they met kids in youth and family programs. 4-H is Minnesota’s largest youth development organization, delivered by Extension staff and volunteers. Extension partners with Ka Joog to provide positive opportunities for Somali-American and other East African youth. Ka Joog tailors its programming toward enriching the lives of Somali-American youth with education, mentoring, employment opportunities and the arts. The 4-H experience grows leaders with life skills like confidence, independence, resilience and compassion.
“Because of this unique partnership between Ka Joog and Extension, Somali-American youth are part of the 4-H family and learn by doing,” says Farah. “Some even took part in the National 4-H Conference in D.C.”
The Minnesota Student Survey shows that Somali youth are committed to completing high school and going to college. “Somali youth report the highest commitment to learning of any social group in Minnesota,” says Joanna Tzenis, Extension educator in Urban 4-H. “Somali parents consistently seek out experiences that will improve their children’s educational outcomes.”
Growing healthy bodies in a new land
To do well in school, kids must eat nutritious foods and stay healthy. “Many Somali parents are accustomed to a fairly balanced traditional diet that includes beans, lentils and grains, but their children come home asking for pizza, burgers and chicken nuggets,” says Christine Navarro, Extension health and nutrition educator. Years of war and refugee camp life also disrupted nutritious cooking and eating traditions for many families.
New Americans who aren't enrolled in college are often surprised there is something at the University of Minnesota for them. Participants in U of M Extension health and nutrition classes learn recipes that keep families healthy.
One challenge is to make foods that kids will eat, but in ways that are much better for them. Another challenge is encouraging and teaching men to cook as their wives join the workforce. Hibaq Dualeh leads six-week classes for low-income Somali adults through Extension’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed). Teaching in the Somali language, she is able to reach across the spectrum of English language learners and gain the trust of her participants. “They don’t know what Extension is at first. They are surprised to find out that there is something at the University of Minnesota that is for them,” says Dualeh, who also helps lead a garden project at the Brian Coyle Center. “We show them that we care about their health and that we are present in their communities. We don’t disappear.”
Dualeh has been with Extension for three years, but the SNAP-Ed program has been helping people live healthier lives in Minnesota for decades. Dualeh says it’s often a matter of giving low-income families awareness about what and how much they are consuming—excess salt and sugar, for example—that can lead to hypertension and diabetes. “Once they have that awareness, and the knowledge about how to prepare the fruits and vegetables they find here, they do make changes.”
Sharing what’s been learned
Mohamed Farah (left) and Jennifer Skuza filled a tour bus with national visitors eager to learn from U of M Extension's positive experiences working with Somali-American refugees.
This characteristic enthusiasm among Somali-Americans to improve their lives boosts the success of programs like SNAP-Ed, Ka Joog, Urban 4-H STEM clubs and campus immersion camps. It also allows the opportunity for Minnesota to help professionals in other states learn from these experiences with refugee youth and families. “Minnesota is home to a unique opportunity for cultural learning,” says Skuza. “Youth work has long been a venue for culture learning and for creating positive social change.”