By Clare Clancy
Aduun waa sheeko iyo shaahid. Translated into English, the Somali proverb means that the world is full of stories and makes you a witness.
It’s one of the many lessons 76-year-old Mohamed Jama wants to teach the youth in Edmonton’s Somali-Canadian community.
“If they don’t know where they come from, they don’t know where they’re going,” he said Friday.
Jama, who has lived in Edmonton for 25 years, is participating in a series of initiatives to improve intergenerational communication. The latest program culminated with a book of stories, proverbs and poems, after a collaboration with the Centre for Race and Culture in winter 2016.
But the Somali-Canadian Seniors Project also drew attention to a growing problem in the community.
“Seniors can feel isolated and experience depression,” said Jibril Ibrahim, president of the Somali-Canadian Cultural Society of Edmonton. “Senior centres do a great job for one size fits all, but I think their model needs to be revised.”
Ibrahim estimated there are countless isolated seniors in the city’s 20,000-strong Somali-Canadian community, and seclusion may be more prevalent among women due to traditional roles.
“It creates an isolation for them to stay all day at home and not have any programs.”
Ibrahim visited several senior centres to conduct a needs assessment and examine how programs could be more inclusive for aging Somali-Canadians. He noted there are gaps in services relating to culture, religion, diet and language.
“Going to a centre can be intimidating for them if they don’t speak English,” he said. “They may be shy and cannot express themselves.”
Religion can also be limiting, with Muslim seniors needing access to a multi-purpose prayer room in order to pray five times per day. This also factors in to being able to enjoy community dinners, since seniors may observe a halal diet.
“When (centres) become inclusive, it’s not just for Somali seniors,” Ibrahim said. “Imagine having all those seniors from around the world having a coffee, or dinner and sharing their experiences.”
Ibrahim is also recommending better transportation options for seniors who don’t drive, and programs that allow for the participation of young children, since many grandparents are regular caretakers.
“It requires centres wearing inclusive lenses, looking into their programs,” he said. “The programs they have are dancing or playing bridge … yes it’s good, but some seniors might want something different.”
For Jama, who has nine children and a large brood of grandchildren, the priority is to find a place for multiple generations to come together and discuss culture, language and history. He believes it’s not only a form of cultural preservation, but also a way to quell criminal behaviour among Somali-Canadian youth. For now that place is at the Somali-Canadian society’s building at 6770 129 Ave.
Ibrahim, who plans to work with city administration on the issue, hopes seniors will eventually integrate into centres across Edmonton.
“If we don’t take care of our seniors, who are we as a people?” he said.