It didn’t take long for the health fair to turn into something like a dance party inside the Brooklyn Park activity center on a recent Friday night.
For the Sierra Leonean nurses who helped organize the event, the high-energy gathering embodied wellness. Exercise is a key part of healthy living, after all.
They call themselves the Sierra Leone Nurses Association of Minnesota. The new group of 35 health care professionals banded together several months ago to promote wellness through events like the recent health fair. Its members aim to educate the estimated thousands of Minnesotans from Sierra Leone.
The goal is to hold more health clinics and also send resources like food, money and medicine back to Sierra Leone, said Kumba Kanu, a nurse practitioner who helped create the group.
“We want to be a voice for our community and be advocating for these resources,” Kanu said. “As nurses, we thought it was vital for us to stand as one group.”
At the inaugural health fair, colorful tables offered information on various health topics, from diabetes to nutrition to malaria. A Planned Parenthood display gave information on sexual and reproductive health, including pamphlets on menopause and sexually transmitted diseases.
Kids flocked to a table about home safety, where the local fire department gave out red plastic hats. Nearby, young girls raised money for a school in Sierra Leone with homespun bracelets. Blood pressure screenings were also available.
Nurses in the group say language barriers can make doctors appointments confusing, and being better informed about medical conditions can make all the difference.
“How would they know about diabetes and hypertension? We have to tell them the signs and symptoms,” said Fatima Ngekia, a member of the group.
The April 28 health fair in many ways doubled as an Independence Day celebration for the dozens of Sierra Leonean families who turned out for the event, which was also organized by the Sierra Leone Community in Minnesota, a charity group.
As an ode to the coastal West African country, a spray-painted banner near the blood-pressure screenings read: “Happy 56th Independence to Sierra Leone.”
For a nation battered by Civil War and more recently by the Ebola virus, communal celebration is like its own kind of healing balm, residents said.
“It’s the community coming together,” said Haja Kadiatu Kabba, who came to the event with her husband, Alpha Yaya Kabba. “It makes me happy.”
Alpha Yaya Kabba said through a translator that he has a heart condition. But by taking medicine and going to the doctor, “little by little” his health is improving, he said. Kabba even got a thumbs up from a nurse for his normal blood pressure reading.
After a while, even the nurses set aside their blood pressure monitors and joined the dancing.
The nurses said they had reason to celebrate: for their education, their profession and for this new effort to help their community be healthy.
“Some of us are privileged to be educated here,” said Lahai Ansumana, a registered nurse. “We want to give back to those who have just immigrated here or who have been here many years.”