WILLMAR, Minn. — Whether in Willmar, Minn., or Nairobi, Kenya, Arfon Mohamud has always been involved, volunteering and working on behalf of families throughout her community.
"Advocating is in my blood," Mohamud said.
That drive has served her well over the past 14 months, as the coronavirus pandemic arrived and significantly changed her job as a community nurse liaison for Kandiyohi County Public Health.
"The job changed, but I was prepared," Mohamud said.
Explaining the pandemic
Mohamud was hired in December 2019 as a community nurse liaison with Kandiyohi County Public Health. In addition to serving as a home visiting nurse and on the team that coordinates the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, Mohamud worked to provide support and promote health and wellness throughout Willmar's diverse communities.
"Her role is to build trusting relationships between Public Health and the community," said Jody Ammerman, Public Health supervisor, during a May 5 presentation to the Kandiyohi County Board.
When COVID-19 began spreading throughout Willmar and Kandiyohi County, Mohamud stepped up to make sure the Somali community was hearing accurate information in a language and style they could understand.
"Word of mouth was spreading super fast in my community," Mohamud said. "Credible and not so reliable information was going around."
To help combat the spread of inaccurate and false information, Mohamud helped translate information from the state and federal government and created informational videos in Somali, some with English subtitles and one that was done with animation.
"Why social distancing, why quarantine. And put the message in a way the Somali community will agree to it," Mohamud said. Other videos focused on handwashing, how to wear masks correctly, and ways women who wear hijabs can wear a mask without having to access their ears.
"The Somali community started seeing more of me," Mohamud said. "I had a lot of people call me."
Effectively spreading information about the pandemic to the Somali community wasn't just about translating it into the correct language. It was also important to communicate in ways and terms the families would understand and react to.
Many Somali families live with multiple generations under one roof, and staying away from family and friends for months on end would be extremely difficult for many. Mohamud also had concerns about the mental health of her friends, family and neighbors. Many have lived through horrible trauma in their lives, and finding themselves isolated might have caused them to dwell on difficult memories and experiences.
Building the social distancing and quarantine message around terms of the family and how to protect it helped increase the understanding of how important it was to follow the health recommendations and mandates.
"If you want to keep your grandma and grandpa safe, you have to do your part. That kind of resonated with them," Mohamud said.
Getting vaccines in arms
The arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines added another layer of challenges that Mohamud had to contend with. As has been experienced across the nation and globe, there were questions about vaccine safety, side effects and eligibility requirements. Many wanted to wait and see before volunteering to receive the shots.
"There was a lot of ... I call it the guinea pig and scapegoat scenario," Mohamud said. "Africans from Africa tend to think they are scapegoats in most of the things, so they didn't want to get the vaccine."
Mohamud also had to explain the vaccines and how they work in terms that could be understood by people who might not have a strong understanding of modern science and medicine. Mohamud said some elders of the community who came to America as refugees or immigrants maybe didn't understand that the vaccines they had to take as part of the refugee process were also protecting them from serious diseases.
By late April, progress was being made in getting more members of the Somali community to be vaccinated. Some were getting the shots through work, and a vaccination information meeting held in mid-April in downtown Willmar led some in attendance to get the Johnson & Johnson shot that night.
"Somalis started taking the vaccine, when it became eligible to everybody else," Mohamud said.
Unfortunately, a few days later the federal government paused that vaccine due to concerns about a very rare blood clot disorder. Mohamud said she was soon taking calls from very concerned people whom she had inoculated only a few days before.
"The Johnson & Johnson one put the fear back in everybody," Mohamud said.
While that was a setback, interest in getting the vaccines is showing signs of increasing again. Mohamud said Somalis are very in tune to global news and are following what is happening in other areas of the world very carefully.
"They knew what was happening in India," Mohamud said. "Things are getting serious now."
More institutions, both locally and statewide, are also helping out. Mohamud said a Somali group from the Twin Cities is planning to come to Willmar to hold a vaccination clinic in the next few weeks. The local mosques are also chipping in, telling their members to get vaccinated.
With the news, help coming from other parties and word of mouth from those who have gotten vaccinated, the pro-vaccination message is spreading.
"That gives me hope that the community is more open to getting the vaccines," Mohamud said.
Mohamud has always wanted to help people. When she was growing up, she wanted to be a doctor. Her father wanted her to be an accountant.
"I did two years of excruciating accounting," Mohamud said.
When she arrived in the United States, she went back to school, this time for nursing. As a nurse, she thought she would get the hands-on time with the patients that she wanted. However, as a mom with three young kids and a husband who is away for work, she ended up deciding a nursing job might not fit her family's needs.
"Community health is the next best place I can be," Mohamud said. "I'm glad I went with community health, I feel like it is my place."
As the pandemic seems to be turning a corner, Mohamud wants to continue her community liaison work.
"I tend to see myself as a community liaison, people tend to see me as a Somali liaison," Mohamud said. "I am working to change that."