Share about your life journey and how you found yourself living and working in the City Heights community.

Sahra: I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. My father, May Allah, have mercy on him, had a very successful export and import business. My mother was a housewife; may Allah have mercy on her as well. When our country erupted into civil war, many of us were split up and went to different countries. Some of my family members are now living in Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, and here in North America. My mother was able to come to the United States in 1992, and eventually, I was able to join her a few years later and settle in City Heights.

City Heights is one of the most central areas for East Africans because this is where many of us began our resettlement journey in the U.S. My vocational journey in City Heights started with SAY San Diego (Social Advocacy for Youth) as a Youth Support Worker in the early 2000s. I worked with the East African youth groups offering one-on-one counseling and facilitating various youth groups focused on education, support, and gang prevention. In the early 2000s, many of the difficulties our community faced with our youth were truancy, high school dropout rates, racial stereotyping and discrimination, eating disorders among young women, violence, alcohol abuse, and much more. These issues stemmed from the influence of media and the many adjustments our youth had to a new society without the traditional family and community support they were used to back home.
While I worked with the youth, I graduated from San Diego City College and then continued my education at SDSU to broaden my experience in Sociology. After graduating from SDSU in 2004, I worked at the City Heights Wellness Center with mothers and daughters. We worked together to organize various programs, which led to the development of the Hooyo Program to address Health and Nutrition among East African women and youth. City Heights began getting a lot of attention from funding partners like Price Philanthropies and The California Endowment, for which the Hooyo Program became a beneficiary of their generosity.

You have served the City Heights community for many years. Describe your current and past roles and what you have enjoyed the most. 

S: My roles have had different titles, but I was always been a Community Organizer and Social Justice Advocate with a focus on, but not limited to, the East African Community. Years later, I now find myself in a similar role as the Executive Director of UWEAST (United Women of East African Support Team), with a special emphasis on understanding the importance of building relationships with each other and within other diverse communities. What I enjoy the most is convening communities and imagining the possibilities of achieving a better world together. 

How did you create the United Women for East African Support Team?

S: UWEAST’s journey began in the early summer of 2008 with a group of about five women from various parts of East Africa. These women were all mothers to children of different age groups, ranging from newborns to young adults. The women envisioned having a safe space where they could connect and gather to discuss issues of concern as well as celebrate their successes. In essence, these women were foreseeing our center at the time, though UWEAST had not been birthed yet.
At this stage, I was a Coordinator at Scripps Wellness Center, and – by no choice of my own – five women decided that I should be their Organizer. These women were very persuasive, hardcore, and would not take “no” for an answer. I knew I was outnumbered; hence, I accepted their ‘persuasive plan’ with aligned visions and began organizing to the best of my ability.
In December 2008, UWEAST was born as a project of SAY San Diego. We met together as a group of women on a weekly basis and started putting together a rudimentary business plan, answering questions about who we were, what goals we wanted to accomplish, how we wanted to accomplish them, and why.  We visualized the space of our first center and began to plan the design even before finding or securing the location. With the support of our fiscal agent, SAY San Diego, we started HAYAT (life), the Women’s Mental Health Program, meeting on a weekly basis to share each other’s challenges and contribute ideas on how to overcome them. This is how UWEAST became official. (Picture to the right shows Sahra, middle, with two founding members.)
From there, UWEAST expanded into offering programs that supported the community in the areas of education, social services, mental health, and entrepreneurship. UWEAST has had a long history and presence in City Heights for almost 15 years, which has been a wonderful blessing to all of us.  
At the beginning of 2020, we moved and opened our new center on the border of San Diego and La Mesa. Our youth and women were excited and looked forward to the new space, especially because it came with a commercialized kitchen and an area designated solely for the youth, which we call the Youth Hub!  The Hub is youth-led and designed. The youth have invested interest in the Hub and have taken great pride in its planning and creation of it. On their own, the youth did the painting, moved all the furniture into place, and decorated the Hub the way they wanted it to be. In addition, they set up a study area, another space to socialize, and a place to just “chill.” The women running our catering business, Barak and Bilal, were also excited about the amazing kitchen where they could cook giant meals for the community.

What accomplishments and impacts are you most proud of with your work in the City Heights community? 

S: There are several accomplishments over the years that I feel proud of, such as the women-only swimming program, halal food at schools, and our mental health efforts. Most significantly, I am so proud to see many of our youth, who used to be participants in our programs, grow into leaders of our organization. When we started our organization, one of the most urgent matters was uplifting and supporting our youth, creating space, and mental health support. I am very proud that UWEAST has been successful in meeting and addressing these issues. (To the left, Sahra accepts a recognition award at a 30-Years Mid City Celebration Event.)
What lessons have you learned throughout your efforts that you would like to pass on to others?

S: It is most important to have core values that represent one as being kind, considerate, supportive, open, and genuine. We are all human regardless of demographic differences. More and more people are coming to understand that race and social status are “social constructs”. This means they are constructed by society and can be used to divide us. We cannot let that happen. We all have the ability to be kind and considerate of everyone around us. We need to teach our children this and continue raising individuals who will be kind and resilient while ensuring they are equipped with the tools they need. For example, if someone has privilege, he/she needs to be kind to others who are less privileged. When life is hard, we need to have the tool of resilience in our personal toolkit to continue working, believing, and looking toward brighter days ahead. Life struggles happen to everyone. It was not easy to be a refugee or asylee, yet it is through these tools of resilience and kindness that we have been helped. And now, like the popular saying, we are paying it forward. 

What advice would you give youth in City Heights? Any encouraging words for our community families during this challenging time?

S: Changes are doable. Everything can change. This is the nature of life. It is up to us to decide whether it will be positive or negative. We cannot let negative forces overtake us. Unity, positive thinking, giving others opportunities, and caring for the community and environment are impacts that will last a lifetime. We must appreciate and be mindful of how we can advocate together.

Mr. Price recognizes you as a City Heights Hero for all you do for our community, and it is clear you have become a hero to those you serve. What are your thoughts about this recognition?
S: I am grateful for Mr. Price, his whole family, and indeed his team. Of course, they have done so much for City Heights, and many of us appreciate their generosity and kindness. It takes everyone to do their part to create a holistic, healthy, mindful, resilient, and well-off community. I am very optimistic that City Heights will continue to be a leading example of what a diverse, vibrant, energetic, and resilient community can achieve. I am so proud to be a part of this community.
MAHADSANID (Thank you), Sahra Abdi