Women in Tukwila find their own place to keep fit

When Aisha Dahir saw an opportunity to get Somali women in the Tukwila community physically fit, she seized on it, enlisting the help of the Tukwila Community Center and the Global to Local Health Initiative group.

Global to Local Health Initiative’s Alma Villegas

When Aisha Dahir saw an opportunity to get Somali women in the Tukwila community physically fit, she seized on it, enlisting the help of the Tukwila Community Center and the Global to Local Health Initiative group.

At the time, Dahir was leading health and wellness education classes at her local mosque and needed to find a space where women from her community would feel comfortable getting physical exercise. Because they are Muslim women, working out in a typical gym setting with males and without their hijabs, or head coverings, was not an option. So Dahir needed a space to accommodate a women’s-only, affordable fitness experience.

Her contact with staff at the Tukwila Community Center and the Global to Local Health Initiative proved successful. A fitness session was born, not only for Somali and Muslim women but other women from diverse cultures as well. The fitness program now has Somali, Eritrean, Latinas, Moroccan, Sudanese, Burmese and caucasian American women.

This partnership with the Tukwila Community Center and the Global to Local Health Initiative is an example of the kinds of activities the initiative is creating to reduce health disparities in Tukwila and SeaTac. The initiative targets the diverse populations in these cities by modeling innovations from the world of global health to achieve their mission.

“The Muslim women have limited service and this is one of the services we are so appreciative of Tukwila to offer,” said Dahir, who is now a health promoter for Global to Local. “I mean this has never happened before.”

Global to Local Health promoters are locally recruited Americorps volunteers who engage and educate their communities on important health issues. Currently, there are health promoters for the Latino, Somali, Burmese and Arabic communities. They attend the women-only fitness hours with members from their communities. The Tukwila Community Center offers a discounted admission price, $3, for any woman who wants to use the fitness room from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. During this designated time, staff blocks out the windows with colored paper, so that the women are not visible to the outside world, in particular men.

“Our mission is to serve the community and so that means every member of the community, whether it’s the homeless to more affluent members,” said Steve Batz, center recreation specialist. “If we’re able to and we have the means to, we’re definitely going to create our programs or offer programs that can meet as many people as possible.”

This access is crucial to marginalized groups in the Tukwila and SeaTac communities because it provides a place to community members to get fit and realize their health-care goals.

“A lot of the women I see and my family, it’s just we came from a place where the sun is up, people walk,” said Dahir. “You don’t sit like six months in the house because it’s dark outside. It’s limited what you can do here because of the weather, because of transportation. So having something like this is great.”

She calls Global to Local’s endeavor a “grassroots effort.” Dahir has observed people in her community making a conscious effort to make healthier choices through activities like reading labels and exercising. A lot of Somalian people who now live in Tukwila aren’t used to the vast availability of fast food and processed food in the U.S. Dahir said the problem is the amount of carbohydrates like rice and pasta her community consumes.

“A lot of us here have lived here for 20 years,” she said. “So what are you going to do? You’re going to be effected by the society you live in.”

For Veronica Abraham, the Latina health promoter, her job is a “double bonus” because she gets to help her community and get fit. Abraham works out with her clients. Understanding health care reform and getting access to care is one of the biggest concerns of the Tukwila Latino community, she said.

“Healthcare reform will be one of the biggest issues that my community’s facing because I would say 90 percent of the community I’m serving don’t have insurance,” said Abraham.

Linda Po is a health promoter for the Burmese Tukwila community. She also works out with the women and is working with Burmese youth at Foster High School to reach out to their parents.

“We are targeting the youth because the youth (are) easier to understand the system here and also the language,” said Po. “The parents don’t speak the language and the youth can speak the language, so they can understand more about living in the U.S.”

Po enjoys her job, she says, because she likes helping people who don’t know how to get resources and that makes her feel good.

So far just this one fitness program of Global to Local’s overall mission is making progress in the community.

“Right now we see the impact in individual cases,” said Alma Villegas, program supervisor. “I can say for participants in Tukwila, in specific the Burmese and Eritrean population, we’ve seen two cases of individuals whose blood sugar levels have gone down, just as a result of participating in the nutrition classes.”

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