Reporter L. Nur interviews Somali health equity and spiritual wellness adequate Sagal Shire about the Somali community's response to Covid-19by L. Nur, Freelance Journalist May 6th 2020 · 6 min read
Sagal Shire, a health equity and spiritual wellness advocate, has been tracking the spread of COVID-19 since December 2019, but never imagined it would end up in Minnesota. Her natural response was to start panicking about her family and the Somali community, as her work is in lowering barriers to healthcare access for underrepresented communities.
“When we started seeing cases here, I couldn’t believe it!” Shire shared in her infectiously melodic voice. “My mom has diabetes and high blood pressure, so I kept thinking about her, and my grandma, and [also how I would] translate this into the [Somali] community?”
The Pandemic, Somali Elders and Immigrant Trauma
Shire lives at home with her parents and siblings, while her grandma lives elsewhere in the Twin Cities. She is apprehensive about elders in her community not understanding the full magnitude of the pandemic’s impact, especially coming from an immigrant and refugee background.
“There’s already a lot of trauma,” Shire said. “Already being an immigrant you’re balancing between ‘I need you to be informed but I also need you to be sane and don’t want to trigger you into an anxiety attack due to previous experiences’.”
That’s why when she calls her grandma to check on her, Shire filters her updates. For example, once, when Shire’s grandma asked if the pandemic would mean a higher risk of death if she caught the coronavirus, Shire didn’t outright say “yes”; her intent was to protect her grandma, who lives alone, from feeling panicked or triggered.
“How do you have conversations with loved ones who maybe don’t speak proficient English or who don’t watch the news?” she said. “[The elders] are the vulnerable group. But how do you even begin to frame the risk of death to someone who falls under that umbrella?”
Minneapolis’ COVID-19 Response with the Somali Community
Shire observed that community stakeholders in Minneapolis made relatively early efforts to spread awareness about the coronavirus in culturally sensitive ways, pushing information out in March even days before the statewide lockdown announcement, she said.
Somali American leaders, such as grassroots community organizers, health educators, Somali media outlets, and religious leaders, took the lead — disseminating information to their community via social media, Youtube and hosting Zoom calls, Shire said.
“In Minneapolis we’re so blessed because there were efforts on multiple levels to push this out and support the community,” Shire said, also pointing to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s efforts. He posted a Facebook video on March 17th to faith communities, speaking in Somali to encourage the community to worship at home instead of the masjid, while partnering with a number of Somali-Minnesotan leaders to release translated public statements about COVID-19.
Most recently, Mayor Frey allowed the adhan (Muslim call to prayer) to be broadcasted five times a day in Cedar Riverside during Ramadan — again, to remind Muslims to pray at home in order to contain the spread.
Still, Shire added that she wished more of the information could have contained opportunities to explain the emotional consequences of the pandemic, and how families would need to start preparing for the worst.
Somali TV Minnesota presented a show about coronavirus in the Somali language on Facebook Live (March 21st)
“Alhamdulillah (praise God), I think the news has reached us, but the gaps I saw were our families really processing it,” Shire added. “It’s one thing to translate the information, but it’s another to actually explain to them that this is really serious — that this isn’t just a common flu, there’s people dying.”
Already a faithful woman who is consistent with her five daily prayers, Shire’s anxieties and emotional turmoil about the health of loved ones, and about the possibility of losing her job, led her to begin offering her late-night Qiyam prayers — with more khushoo’, or mindfulness, and more often. Qiyam prayers are the additional prayers a Muslim can offer during the pre-dawn hours, to show one’s utmost devotion to God. She also began reading even more books on faith during the quarantine.
Shire said the pandemic has been a wake-up call for the Muslim community and all people of faith, and that being in quarantine has forced many to “face their demons”. In her network of loved ones, she’s already seen several people who used to be culturally Muslim but not practicing, return to observing the tenets of the religion with an eagerness and urgency she has never seen before.
“In a way, I’m glad this is happening, because a lot of us are being given a chance to reflect on our lives before we rush back to ‘normal’. But what’s actually worth it to rush back to in this dunya (worldly life)?” Shire asked.
“So many people I love, Allah has guided them. It took a crisis and pandemic,” she said. “But the level of urgency I’m seeing to go back to God — I’ve never seen that hurriedness.”
Still, Shire said some days, she feels grief, an emotion she didn’t even know she was feeling until looking it up online. By giving herself the space to process “the absence of normalcy, of tradition, of routine and consistency and certainty,” she said she is feeling more prepared going into Ramadan (which started April 24th).
Sagal Shire said she uses candles to make her room more festive this Ramadan.
She even got herself a Ramadan planner, organized her room, and set up candles in her prayer space. Despite the pandemic, her intention this Ramadan is to maximize on her worship in isolation by tracking her goals and spending her time in prayer, deep reflection and watching religious lectures on Youtube.
“I feel so much better because I’ve processed emotionally. If I didn’t do that part I’d be in a very bad headspace going into Ramadan, I wouldn’t be productive!” Shire said.
Shire has reached a place of acceptance, understanding that as a Muslim, this is a test from God, one that “we’re all sharing together,” she said. “I’ve never experienced a trial that the entire ummah (Muslim community) is feeling. This is not something you’re only experiencing by yourself.”
Many people in her network are still “in denial” about the reality of COVID-19, even Muslims, Shire said. She acknowledges people’s fears are valid; still, she doesn’t want her friends to struggle emotionally or mentally, especially going into Ramadan.
“You’re fasting, that’s already a layer of difficulty…but imagine not coming to terms with the fact that you’re in the midst of a pandemic?” she said. “You have to come to terms [with it], otherwise Ramadan is going to be difficult. I don’t want people to be bitter.”
Ultimately, Shire feels peace in knowing that Allah created the coronavirus, adding that Muslims can’t question the will of Allah’s decree, or qadr, a central Islamic concept that could be translated to ‘divine destiny’.
“I keep asking Allah to please give me the strength to weather this storm… There are days I’m on a spiritual high and I have tawwakul (firm faith),” Shire concluded. “I’m tying my camel and I feel good that whatever comes out of this will be the best for us.” Connect with Sagal Shire