Meet Saeed Fahia, Community Leader and "Egal Shidad" Project Partner
Saeed Fahia first came to the United States in 1979 to obtain a Masters Degree in Physics from Eastern Michigan University. He returned to Somalia in 1981 and eventually became the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs in the College of Education at Somali National University. Saeed returned to the U.S. once more in 1987 to attend the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. By the time he completed his thesis in 1992, the war had started in Somalia and he was unable to return. He moved to Canada for a few years before coming to Minnesota. Saeed now lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two children. He is the Executive Director of Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota (CSCM) and is one of the key partners in the Egal Shidad Project.
1. Tell us what it means to be an immigrant in America. Well, I think there are two kinds of immigrants. There are immigrants that made a decision to come to the U.S. to make a change and improve their lives. The other group of immigrants is made up of refugees who came because they had nowhere else to go. They haven’t made the same choice as the first group. The first group is very excited to be here and already knows how they want to change their lives. With the refugee group, it’s more like they are excited but they have not had the same mental preparation. They still long for home, and it feels like many choices are being made for them. I am more of the first kind of immigrant. I got really depressed at the beginning. I was watching the Somalia I love and know disintegrate, but I was already able to understand many things about this culture when that happened. Others don’t feel happy in their own skin, or they don’t feel at ease. But over time, you adapt.
An immigrant is someone who willingly wants to change their situation in a new country. You have to cope with a new language, culture, and community. It is very exciting because compared to where they are coming from there is a lot of opportunity for education, work and advancement. It is harder for some people to adapt than others. I have heard it is much harder in other countries to be accepted. I feel that Somalis have been accepted here.
2. For better or worse, how can or how does media (TV, Movies, radio, news stories) make a difference in immigrants’ lives?
Media makes the most difference in immigrants’ lives when they are a part of the media or developing the story. When they have input, it helps immigrants to benefit from the messages as well as to adapt. Stories that demonstrate how immigrants contribute – paying taxes, getting education – these success stories help with the integration process.
Media is unhelpful when the new group is seen as not integrating well or when the media looks for mistakes by 1 or 2 individuals and then associates it with all immigrants. It’s possible that the larger community might not be aware of it, but when something negative is reported or published, as an immigrant you feel its impact on you personally.
3. Tell us about an interesting or wise practice from another culture that you wish Americans would adopt.
I like the way elders are respected in African cultures. It’s not that they are disrespected here, but in the U.S. age is more of a liability then an asset. I am not saying that every elder is wise, but we see ourselves in our elders. They show us something we can aspire to be, and remind us that as we age we want to be remembered for our contributions rather than forgotten. African cultures think of elders in this way: Elders have the capacity to see things more in totality and put things in a larger perspective. They don’t dwell on small negatives because their lifetime has shown them that things they thought were significant in their youth did not have a large impact overall. They have a perspective that comes with time. Elders can prepare the young, to help them find a more balanced outlook.
4. How could immigrant health and well-being be improved in your city or in the United States? Immigrant health will improve when immigrants have enough information and adopt certain practices. They need to know about resources, and they need to go to regular check-ups and ask the doctor questions. They need to learn to navigate health systems too. I really think it comes down to more information and adopting healthy practices.
Immigrants also need to discontinue some practices that they have from back home. Back home it was common to stop taking a medication as soon as you felt better instead of completing the course ordered by the doctor. Sharing medication is another practice, and it can actually be dangerous. Immigrants need to learn new practices and discontinue others.
5. Tell us something about your background that led you to become the person you are today. What is your greatest motivation or who is your greatest motivator? I think what influenced me the most was that early on in my life I was independent. When I first went to school, I stayed with an aunt because my village didn’t have a school. Her village was about 50 miles away from mine. Starting with the 4th grade, I went to boarding schools. I learned to be independent, and that shaped my life. I learned to depend on myself, and I do things my own way. I didn’t grow up surrounded by relatives. I make judgments independently, so I tend to be more neutral. I find Somalis to be more partisan.My greatest influence was my father. He became a seaman at an early age, like 17 or something. He worked on a British ship, and that’s where he learned English. He then became a trader, importing goods from Yemen. I use to see him rarely – mostly on school vacations if he was home from traveling. But he wanted me to go to the boarding school, that I should learn. He had a very realistic view – he advocated for our village to build a school and also a post office. He saw a lot and met a lot of people in his travels, and this influenced him. His stories always impressed me. His education was not beyond elementary school. He could read and write, and do his own accounting. I used to help him with a small store that sold dates and sugar. He also sold arabic gum which is gathered from the barks of trees. Once, I was helping him and several workers to collect the arabic gum. We had to hike way up a mountain, and we were camping near the trees he was tending. Another group was up there, and they did not want us there. They told us we needed to leave and tore down our tent. My father stayed very calm, and continued to communicate with the people that wanted us to leave. Eventually the elders were called in to decide if we could stay. They decided we could, and the issue was over. My father had a lot of impact on me about how he solved things and forged an agreement.
Tags: Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, CSCM, Egal Shidad, mental health, Saeed Fahia
Topics: Building Community, Civic Life, Community Health, Community Media, Health Care, Immigrant Integration, Immigrants, Immigration, Leadership, Mental health, New Routes Leaders, Receiving Communities, Refugees
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New Research & Recommendations
This report (PDF 3.8MB) offers guidance for community organizations and those who fund social change in how best to harness the power of local media-making for community health improvement. Spanish-language version is now available. Una versión en español de este informe esta en la web.