Over the last 3 years, the NGO Jade Project has been providing services and activities for older Somali women living in the greater Helsinki area. Jade Project’s aims are to provide activities and support which facilitates the development of older immigrant women’s abilities to function in Finland, to improve their capability to manage in everyday life, promote their holistic well-being, as well as to increase the awareness of culturally sensitive elderly care. Some of these activities include basic Finnish language and mathematics courses, exercise and nutrition classes, and a wellbeing discussion group in Somali language, among others.
There have been other organizations in the past who have offered similar activities for Somali women, but the women did not want to participate. This is perhaps one reason which has given rise to one of many misconceptions in Finnish society about Somali women, especially those of the older generations. These include beliefs that Somali women are very passive and do not want to do anything outside of their household duties. However, the project workers at Jade have experienced quite the opposite, especially with regard to physical exercise. During the project, the water exercise classes that have been offered, have been very well-received by the Somali mothers of Jade, as they like to call themselves. In fact, there were so many who wished to participate in the classes, that it was necessary for the group to be split into three parts, with strict time limits set for each.
Oftentimes, we make judgements of others without knowing their background and history. In the case of the Somali mothers, it is perhaps helpful to understand the huge changes they have had to go through in their moving to Finland. Firstly, in most of their cases, as refugees, the movement from their home country was not a choice, but a necessity. Then we can consider the change of lifestyle, from Somalia, where their daily life was filled with a lot of physical activity, to a country with a climate very different to what they have been accustomed to, and which makes moving around difficult. Additionally, there is the challenge to learn a new language and integrate into a new culture, which, if one were to imagine the tables turned, must be quite intimidating –not to mention all of the above with the added factor being of older age in a new country and an entirely different environment. Being overweight is something that is new to many of the Somali mothers, due to the above factors, a well as a change in opportunity for physical activity. The culturally sensitive space and activities offered by Jade Project for the Somali mothers has provided them with a way to empower themselves and to move towards a healthy weight and general wellbeing.
According to Ruth Franco, a project worker at Jade, cultural sensitivity requires that activities are planned with the participation of the service users. In this way, the service users are given the opportunity to convey what elements are important to them in structuring the activities. In the case of Jade Project, the older Somali women, or at least a Somali speaker, were active participants. For the Somali mothers of Jade, it was important for them that their cultural and religious boundaries were respected – that the activities be for women only, with doors closed so that men were not passing by during the exercise classes, that there should be a place available to pray at the prescribed times, and that there should be no music played. This cultural sensitivity is what has been lacking from some other service providers, and may be the reason why they have not been effective in activating clients to participate.
The water exercise classes that Jade Project organized for the Somali mothers were also arranged according to level, as some were absolute beginners, while others had some previous experience. For those without any experience, it was a very big change, and some were even afraid to go in the swimming pool. After the classes, the women were very comfortable in and enjoying the water, and had attained some basic swimming skills. ”They were very appreciative” says Hamdi, ”telling us constantly that ’This is wonderful! We are so happy! Thank you for giving this chance to do this!’”
More than just water exercise
The water exercise classes were more than just about learning to swim for the Somali mothers. According to the project workers, this has been one of the best activities that the project has used to improve the wellbeing of the women – as swimming is a very good exercise for the age of the service users. However, the classes have also been very meaningful for them. ”It wasn’t only about going swimming”, says Hamdi, ”but a place for them to be free.” Due to the dedication of Jade’s project workers to creating a space where the Somali mothers’ culture and religion was respected, they were able to relax and be themselves, and therefore be more open to learning new things.
It wasn’t always very easy for them. Although they enjoyed the water exercise very much, to comply with all the regulations of the swimming hall, such as showering without a bathing suit, was a very big step to take, and a brave one. However, they were willing go through these things because they really enjoyed the activity, as well as appreciated the efforts that the project workers at Jade had made in order to create a culturally sensitive environment for them.
Jade Project workers Hamdi Moalim and Ruth Franco tell that during the 3 year project, the Somali mothers have come very far on their journey of integration into society in Finland. Whereas before, even to get out of the house to come to Jade was challenging for many of them, they are now willing and interested to do so many other things, though this is not always visible to the mainstream Finnish population. ”I’m so proud of them.” says Hamdi.