As a young girl, she benefited from United Women of East Africa. Now she’s one of its youth leaders – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Her early introduction to the United Women of East Africa Support Team was in elementary school, when Miriam Adam attended the group’s intergenerational cooking class with her mom. From there, she became involved with other programs the organization was offering to San Diego’s East African community, including art and photography. They’d created an environment where Adam and other East African families could connect with each other, share their similar cultures, and find belonging.

“I wanted to be involved with UWEAST because it played a crucial role in my upbringing,” she says. “I was exposed to different, great opportunities that I would not have experienced had it not been for the group. I wanted other youth in the community to also have that as well.”

What began as City Heights Hope in 2006 consisted of a small group of East African women doing advocacy work in City Heights. By 2008, that smaller group evolved into UWEAST, a nonprofit organization advocating for culturally competent health services and education, and for the well-being of its community by providing programming for women and families.

Adam, 23, is the youth coordinator for the organization and the catering manager for UWEAST’s catering arm, Baraka & Bilal. In these roles, she serves as a tutor and works with the nonprofit’s Girl Scout troop, as well as facilitates a virtual monthly cooking class to introduce community members to healthy foods and oversees a group to support the mental and emotional health of youth 16 to 25.

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Adam, who lives in City Heights with her parents and siblings, took some time to talk about the organization’s work, her goals as youth coordinator, and stepping back to reflect on how to become her best self.

Q: Tell us about United Women of East Africa Support Team.

A: We are meeting the overwhelming physical and mental health related needs of East African refugee women and families in San Diego. We wanted to create a space for refugee and immigrant families to connect with each other and feel a sense of belonging in the community. We also have a catering business called Baraka & Bilal. It began as a savings group, where a group of East African women put their money together to save and decided to initiate catering services. The group was inspired by a similar group in Ethiopia, and the women here tried to replicate it in San Diego. But instead of saving individually, they decided to save collectively, to have something that they can work together on and be part of something bigger. One of the key values of this group is the social connections that were being made amongst the women. It was important for them to get together, socialize and create a team to support each other for their needs.

Q: Your organization’s website says that UWEAST is responding to the overlooked health needs of East African women and their families. What are some of these health needs, specifically, that were being overlooked?

A: The topic of mental health is considered taboo in the East African community. We are trying to build the bridge and educate the community on this important issue that is prevalent in the community by having programs with translation services that foster dialogue and a better understanding of mental health.

Q: How has UWEAST fostered greater cultural competence and linguistically appropriate care for the community you serve?

A: We have worked with different schools in San Diego to provide cultural competence training and to introduce them to East African culture and how to better assist and care for them in the career field that the students will be going into. For instance, we partner with Point Loma Nazarene University, and we cook, eat and learn about the East African cultures together. We’ve received positive feedback with this because East Africa has many different countries, so it seems like they traveled to different places together. We are not only creating dialogue but we are spending time together by cooking and showing them our culture.

What I love about City Heights …

I love the diversity and cultural richness.

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Q: Tell us about your organization’s relationship with City Heights Hope.

A: The City Heights Hope group was a smaller group of East African women that came together to support and address their issues and needs in the community. The women were doing advocacy work for the City Heights area only. The women started coming together in 2006, and through the years, they have realized that they needed to have their own space and create their own name to do what they wanted to do. But because of some of the barriers that they faced, they couldn’t create the organization at the time. So, in 2008, the idea of having United Women of East Africa Support Team as a nonprofit organization was agreed upon and began.

Q: In what ways has UWEAST evolved since its start in 2008?

A: It has evolved to a nonprofit organization run by community members. There are so many more programs and opportunities for youth, mothers and young men. We offer mental health and substance abuse prevention programs, we have more organizational and community partners, an East African men’s basketball league, different programming for school-aged youth, a larger staff, and more.

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Q: Can you talk about some of the youth programs that you facilitate in your role with the organization? Which programs seem to receive the greatest participation? And why do you think those programs seem to be so popular?

A: Urban Beats provides a safe space for artistic expression, created and developed by transitional age youth between 16 and 25 years old. We offer peer group cohorts and workshops to engage youth in activities and structured curriculum designed to address topics such as mental health challenges, wellness, self-care and healthy relationships.

We also have a weekly tutoring program during the school year. We have a partnership with Point Loma Nazarene University, and they tutor the students every week.

Our most popular program is our Girl Scout troop (Troop 4307) because it is an East African-tailored Girl Scout group. These programs are very important because the youth are able to learn about their customs and culture together, which uplifts them and gives them the confidence they need to hang on their roots in a time where they are taught to assimilate to societal standards.

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Q: What’s your goal as youth coordinator?

A: My goal as a youth coordinator is for our youth to feel a sense of belonging in our space. Sometimes when they are at school, they feel like they are not “American enough” and are treated differently, despite being born and raised in the States. Similarly, when they go back to their motherland, they feel as though they are not enough, culturally. So, it’s important for them to feel a sense of community. A lot of the youth have similar experiences and they can relate to each other and feel connected.

Q: What’s been challenging about your work with UWEAST?

A: Addressing all of the needs in the community. Although our organization does a lot for the community, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. It will take some time to address all of the needs, but we will slowly get there, one step at a time.

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Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?

A: The most rewarding aspect of this work is being with the youth and seeing them grow up right before my eyes.

Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?

A: This work has taught me to be present in the moment and to enjoy it as it passes.

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Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: The best advice I’ve received is to let go and let God take care of it. Sometimes life throws us curve balls, and we want to be in control of our situation, but some things are not in our control no matter how hard we try. “Let go and let God” gives me a peace of mind and keeps me going.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I enjoy journaling because it allows me to reflect on life and how I can be a better version of myself.

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Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: My ideal San Diego weekend would be to walk on one of the walking trails, enjoy nature, and having a picnic at the beach.