City Heights Hope bridges generational and access gaps for Somalis

City Heights Hope community organizer and project coordinator Sahra Abdi has witnessed the leadership growth in her group’s members first hand.

She tells the story of one group member who used to accept schools’ lack of halal foods, which are sanctioned by Islamic law and ritually fit for use. “She said, ‘Ah Sahra, this is America, you either follow what’s provided or you go to another country,’” Abdi said. A short time later, that same woman was talking about going to a higher-level administrator and advocating for halal food when the same issue came up in a hospital setting.

It’s stories like these that have make Abdi believe that City Heights Hope members have been transformed. “People’s perspective of their rights have changed,” Abdi said.

Abdi is a City Heights resident, member of Mid-City Community Advocacy Network (Mid-City CAN) and past member of the Mid-City CAN Coordinating Council. Founded to provide support to Somali families, City Heights Hope is composed of about 200 City Heights residents. The California Endowment has funded the group since 2009, and the Mid-City CAN coordinates the funding.

This summer City Heights Hope ran a four-week program to help connect children to their cultural heritage and community, according to Bill Oswald, an adviser for the group. “It covered culture, history, religion and poetry and strengthened the sense of who they are,” Oswald said.

Somali college students organized the program. The students were inspired to act because they felt that one reason why Somali children weren’t doing as well as they could in school and why too many were in the criminal justice system is that they don’t have this grounding.

“The college students did it all,” Oswald said. “They recruited the teachers and got a small grant.”

About 70 elementary-, middle- and a few high-school students participated in the program, Abdi said. It was based in City Heights’ Southern Sudanese Community Center.

Abdi’s own 7-year-old son benefited from the program. “He was questioning who he is,” she said. “Now I ask what he is, and he says ‘I’m Somali-American.’”

Another program helping to bridge generational gaps is cooking classes that are designed for mothers and daughters. “In our community, parents didn’t experience growing up in America,” Abdi said. “They think it is easy.” The mothers teach their daughters to prepare traditional Somali foods and the daughters teach their mothers to prepare U.S. dishes that are halal.

City Heights Hope’s next project is an ambitious “participatory action” research survey aimed at health access, Oswald said. Group members will talk about their experiences getting health care and then use surveys to determine whether those same experiences are widespread in their community.

After the surveys are completed, group members will make recommendations to improve access. The group is working to complete its health-access campaign plan by the end of the year.

Adam Ward is the Mid-City CAN staff writer and a former San Diego Union-Tribune editor. Adam has lived in San Diego for nearly a decade and is the father of a young son. Contact him at or (619) 283-9624 ext. 210.