By Bonnie Rukin 

In April 2022, Sahro Hassan joined the staff of the Somali Bantu Community Association as the Youth Program Coordinator. By June, she’d launched Kasheekee Youth Program, a “Cultural Telling Room” where she channeled her positive energy and commitment to Somali and Bantu cultural life into an exciting summer program for children in Lewiston. 

Kasheekee ran throughout the summer, with a focus on connecting children to their cultural roots through such activities as crafts, conversation, and storytelling with Somali Bantu elders, weekly visits to Liberation Farms to plant and harvest vegetables, and Arabic study in order to be able to read the Quran. 

Each day, the program served children between the ages of 4 and 14, and the Lewiston School Department provided healthy breakfasts and lunches for program participants. Children went on field trips to Range Pond, the Dew Animal Kingdom, the Maine Wildlife Park, and the Norway Farmer’s Market. 

Hassan arrived in Maine in 2006 at age 10, where her experience was tarnished by name calling from other children. “I recall being called a ‘towel head’ on a weekly basis, and told to go back to my country,” Hassan recalled. Now the mother of two young children, with experience as a children’s mental health case manager, she is aware of the power and importance of cultural identity, and is passionate about “providing children with a safe environment for learning and a deep sense of belonging.” 

Many clients within the Somali Bantu Community do not seek counseling when they need it, she said, both because of the associated stigma and because of the lack of representation among practitioners. A general belief is that if someone needs therapy, they must be seriously mentally ill. Community members often characterize people with mental health problems as “insane.” 

“There is a stigma against people who seek counseling, so I decided to hold meetings to educate my clients and their parents,” she said. “In these meetings, I invite interpreters to translate for the parents.” 

But the stigma is strong and even the interpretation can be problematic if the interpreter believes the stigma is accurate. “Interpreters often describe clients as insane when decoding. Parents refrain from outpatient counseling, so the child doesn’t get labeled ‘crazy,’ ” Hassan said. 

And adults who agree to enter therapy themselves don’t necessarily benefit if they won’t do the work required for healing.  She said, “I have multiple clients discharged by practitioners due to lack of engagement.”   

Hassan believes education can make a difference, so she is beginning a master’s degree program in counseling at the University of Southern Maine this September. She is excited about giving back to her community through her work, which she finds deeply fulfilling. She believes that bridging generational gaps in cultural behaviors to help children make healthy choices is one way to consistently meet their needs. 

To learn more about Kasheekee, email: [email protected]