The word “sex” may only contains three letters, but to the Somali community of Rochester, Minn., it has long been a four-letter word.
That is, until Khadija Ali joined the staff of Planned Parenthood in 2010.
As outreach coordinator, Ali facilitates groups of youth and meets individually with members of the Somali community to talk about all things taboo: reproductive health, birth control, sexuality, pregnancy, healthy relationships and domestic violence.
“The word ‘sex’ itself is a big taboo,” Ali said. “We don’t want to hear about it, we don’t want to talk about it. It’s just left alone for teens to figure out on their own,” with the majority of parents assuming their children will wait until they are married, as their Islamic religion dictates.
The problem is, Ali said, kids who aren’t educated now about practicing safe sex and making healthy choices in their relationships won’t know how to do that later, either.
“Even when you get married, what do you know?” Ali said. “How will you even know if your husband is treating you well or if he’s not? … They don’t even know what normal is.”
Ali knows firsthand about this unspoken territory. Even though she and her mother were close, her mother never talked to Ali about the changes brought on by puberty or about relationships.
Instead Ali turned to her older sister. “Everything was surprising to me,” Ali said. “I didn’t turn out bad … but at the same time, if my mom had talked to me about certain things … maybe it would have been better for me.”
Ali was a young girl living in Somalia with her mother and two sisters when war broke out. They fled to a Kenyan refugee camp. Because her mother spoke English, she was offered a job at the United Nations, and they moved to Canada when Ali was 6.
Around the same time, Ali’s grandparents emigrated to Rochester. Ali and her sisters visited them during school vacations. Those visits became permanent when Ali’s grandfather suffered a stroke during Ali’s junior year of high school. She came to help her grandmother and decided to stay, completing her senior year there.
She attended Rochester Community and Technical College for two years, and then graduated in 2009 from Winona State University with a degree in community health. Ali chose Planned Parenthood’s Rochester clinic for her senior-year internship and has been working there ever since.
Ali, who married shortly after graduation, has a 3-year-old daughter, Feyruz, who likely will enter her teen years knowing more information than Ali did herself.
Perhaps one day Feyruz might even join Youth Power, a peer education program for African youth taught by Ali and developed with feedback from both an adult and a youth committee.
Twice a week for about three months, a co-ed group of about 10 youth gather at the local Boys & Girls Club to learn about sexuality, birth control, healthy relationships and other topics many parents are reluctant to discuss. Participants take a pre- and post-session survey, and Ali can tell from their answers that they have paid attention.
“I really love this job,” she said. “I just love the fact that I get to educate and I see the results.”
Ali is also a go-to person and fields several calls a day from adults seeking information about birth control for themselves, from mothers concerned about their daughters’ relationships or from fathers troubled that Ali’s teachings go against those of the Islamic holy book, the Koran. She will meet people in coffee shops or in their homes, or talk to them during Friday prayer services. Her phone occasionally rings at midnight, and sometimes Ali’s family members are questioned about her role at Planned Parenthood.
Ali loves it all. “[It’s] what makes me get up every day,” she said. “I’m so happy about the fact that I’m teaching people.”
Some days, of course, are easier than others.
“The fathers are still challenging for me,” Ali said. “I get them to back up when I explain that I’m not teaching [their] children to go out there and have sex. I’m just teaching them how to be in a healthy relationship if they decide to be in a relationship, and how to protect themselves if they decide to have sex.”
Overall, however, people respond positively to Ali’s educational message.
“The Somali community is more open now,” Ali said. “From when I started my internship to where I am now, there’s a huge difference. It just keeps getting better.”
Maryam Nur, a 31-year-old parent who serves on the Youth Power program’s adult committee, can attest to that.
“I’ve heard from teens [who said] they didn’t know [Ali’s] information before,” Nur said, “and it’s helping them stay away from certain things.”
Nur, who didn’t take a sexuality class until she was in college, recognizes that things are different today. “These kids are growing up in a different culture. … Sooner or later they will know, and I want them to know about it and get it right,” she said.
Although Ali is only 26, she has earned the respect of her elders, an elusive thing for someone so young, she says. Whether it’s their compliments, well wishes for her future as she contemplates a master’s degree in public health or encouraging their children to participate in Youth Power, Ali is grateful. “The fact that I get that from them is enough for me,” she said.