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Somali Immigrants in Milwaukee Find Help to Overcome Health Problems and Other Issues


After years of witnessing violence, being separated from their loved ones and living in camps, more than 400 Somali refugees resettled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They found more than a new home; they have a refuge and a friend at a local clinic.

It was more than 20 years ago, but Julie Parve has never forgotten her time in Somalia. The nurse practitioner was pregnant with her first child when she and her husband arrived there for a two-year assignment with a medical team from a Milwaukee church. Parve says she never expected to work with Somalis again. So, when she saw a Bantu woman at the Milwaukee clinic where she now works, she was surprised and delighted.

"I stopped her," she recalls, "and said 'Sidded tahay,' which is 'how are you?' [in her native tongue] and we started talking a little bit Somali, a little bit English."

Soon afterwards, she says, more Somali women began to visit the clinic.

"They started to talk with each other," she says. "Then they would ask me, 'Would you see my sister? Would you see my cousin? Would you see my husband? And I said, 'Yes, yes, yes.' They just kept coming."

And in just the past 18 months, Parve built up a client list of some 190 Somali refugees, mostly Bantus. At first, she says, the language was a barrier, but that changed when Somali interpreter Faria Raghe joined her team.

"She is very good at saying exactly what I say," she says, "and then explaining things even more."

Together, Parve says, they have been able to not only provide treatment, but raise awareness among Somali women on wide range of health issues.

"We were able to explain things to them, that because they have a fever, it doesn't mean they have Malaria. And because they have diarrhea, it doesn't mean they have cholera," she says. "We started to explain to them how to check a temperature. We also had to do a lot of teaching about nutrition, breastfeeding, it's so important."

Aisha Hussain, 50, is one of Parve's patients. "I met Julie because of little Saadia, my daughter's little daughter," she says. "Julie takes care of us. My back really hurt and my ear. I couldn't even hear. They cleaned my ear. She helped me a lot."

Hussain's family has lived in Milwaukee for four years, but she misses her husband who is still in Kenya. Such family problems, Faria Raghe says, cause Somali women to suffer depression, another serious health problem that often goes undiagnosed and untreated.

Raghe says Somali women are confused when a doctor asks, "Are you depressed." "We don't have depression [we don't know what depression is], but we have suffering inside," she says. "They know you, they start talking and crying. That's how we get help."

Julie Parve says the close relationship she's developed with the Somali women gives her a better understanding of the reality of their daily lives.

"It's just easier when I do home visits because they like to have you in their homes," she says. "You can kind of look at the environment and make sure that everything is safe and healthy."

And during these home visits, she says, she can help her patients deal with other types of problems.

"They bring their bills, their insurance forms or job applications, a lot of their health care bills, things they get in the mail that they are not sure what it says and what they're supposed to do," she says. "They get a lot of things from the electric company. Even if they have already paid their bill, the electric company would send them a notice saying, 'We'll shut this off until you call.' Well, they can't call, because they don't speak English so we'll call the electric company and explain that to them. We can usually set up some type of payment plan."

Parve admits that taking care of the Somali families takes a lot of her time and energy. But, she adds, she is making friends while making a difference, helping them piece together a life and settle down in their new home.

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