(WFP/Georgina Goodwin)

When Religion and Culture Kill: COVID-19 in the Somali Diaspora Communities in Sweden

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In Sweden there is a small diaspora community of Somali immigrants who fled war and poverty who make up just .69 percent of the total population.[1] Normally, this diaspora group fades into the background, but now, suddenly, a chilling new statistic brings them to the fore, as 40 percent of the reported COVID-19 related deaths occurring in Stockholm involve the Somali diaspora communities. Other Swedish medical experts estimate 18 percent of the COVID-19 deaths country-wide are from the Somali community.[2] This disproportionately high representation of deaths occurring among only one subsection of society is unusual. Therefore, the International Center for Violent Extremism’s [ICSVE] Junior Research Fellow, Othman A. Mahamud, a Somali who lives in Australia, conducted an Internet research foray into the Somali Facebook global diaspora and Somali communities to explore the possible explanations for this disturbing phenomenon. This article details the explanations he received in Facebook discussions over the last week of March 2020 when reaching out in Somali on Facebook, asking the Somali global community for their opinions regarding this startling and grim statistic.

Stubborn Disregard for Health Warnings

45-year-old Ahmed Farah[3] from Stockholm blames the community for failing to heed health warnings as well as misinformation from religious scholars,

“Somalis are stubborn people who do not listen to the messages of health and institutions of health and government institutions. They also listen to wrong information with extremist ideas from religion scholars. This is not a people who read and learn about health awareness and who are careful. Somalis are not the ones who take what is going to be taken as history and learn from it.”

37-year-old Somali Mohamed Omar who lives in Garowe, Somalia agrees on the stubborn and resistant nature of Somali diaspora populations stating, “The main reason is that they have not followed the health instructions given to them. Everywhere Somalis have that problem.”

31-year-old Abdulahi Said, who is part of the Somali diaspora in Melbourne, Australia, jumped into the conversation astutely suggesting that the winter cold in Scandinavia likely causes too many Somalis to crowd indoors together:

“Somalis have their own restaurants. They kill time there. They play cards, and pool, and hands are exchanged. In addition, Somalis are not afraid from disease. This is not braveness; it is stupidity, since they have been told that the disease transmits through physical contact and sitting close to each other. Most of those people who got affected by COVID-19 mostly were unemployed and are now trapped in the queue of death.”

39-year-old Samatar Hassan, a Somali living in Ethiopia, agrees, stating, “I think the biggest issue is that they don’t realize the seriousness of this illness and that is why they ignored it.”

Language Barriers Causing Ignorance

While stubborn unwillingness to heed health advice is certainly cause for concern, not being informed and aware of health advice is also consequential. In that regard, some blamed language barriers as being part of the problem. University educated, 25-year-old Swedish Somali Abdirahman Sayid states, “I think the best way to spread the health messages and the best ways that everyone remains protected is that public health agencies spread the information through local Somali radio and social media.” He goes on to explain that there are also gender differences in who becomes most at risk from either ignorance or wilful disregard of health messages. “Mostly, men are less informed, and they are those who do more socializing, meet in cafeterias, mosques, soccer fields, as well as those who are taxi and bus drivers.”

In this regard, 23-year-old Faduma Ahmed, one of the two females who participated in this discussion, who is of Somali origin and lives in Gothenburg, Sweden comments, “They had no information about this disease, as they have a language barrier for news (Swedish newspapers and TV) and most of them they do not listen.”

To this, Othman asks if new immigrants are not required to learn Swedish upon arrival, if language incompetence is a major factor, and if men and women have the same difficulties.

Faduma from Gothenburg, Sweden replies, “They are taught, and it is important that you learn the language, but our Somali people are not as committed as other ethnic groups.” She adds as a caveat, however, “Now many multilingual publications for awareness are available, which will make it easier for everyone to understand health information and guidelines in the future.”

25-year-old Somali Swedish Abdirahman Sayid echoes others’ comments about language barriers in the Somali diaspora community, “They do not know the language and most of them are able to read in the Somali language only.” Likewise, he points out that, “The Somali person prefers to be told information, not to read information.” He also references an observation that Somalis have apparently continued to ignore or are unaware of quarantine restrictions.

“Yesterday a former colleague called me, who had a cold and flu and COVID-19 symptoms. He was told to remain in the house, but yet went out and visited restaurants in Bellevue, Gothenburg to relax and socialize. My friend said, the Somalis were still there. He took no advice, and the health prevention measures of the restaurants are also still the same; no precautions at all. After the Somali death toll reached disproportionate to the percentage number of those living in Sweden, the authorities decided to interpret all useful information into Somali language.”

Abdirahman Sayid explains. “But it’s up to the people, whether they follow or not. People cannot be forced. Here it’s a free country you know.”

Large Families, Overcrowding, Economic Factors and a Culture of Social Gathering

22-year-old, Somali Swedish Mustaf Salah from the small town of Falköping, Sweden lists stubborn disregard, large families living in close quarters and frequent social gatherings as the problems to which he attributes the high COVID-19 death rate in the Swedish Somali community:

“First, we refused to follow the guidelines and the awareness to remain home and not to meet with a large number of people in restaurants, community centers, mosques, barbershops. Often Somalis are gathering socially. Every single weekend there is a meeting or wedding going on and sometimes people are not obligated to follow preventative procedures. Second, people who succumb to the flu and pass it on to at-risk groups often happens while a person with symptoms has a family number of 4, 6, 7, up to 12 people in the area. They are not separated from one another because they are a big family unit. Lastly, the quarantine aim was for everyone to stay at home, but Somalis invite each other over to their homes and they play all night play-station games and so forth. Most of the time that is how they contracted the COVID-19 from each other.”

29-year-old Somali Nur Abdi, who lives in London and belongs to the large Somali diaspora in the United Kingdom, comments about economic factors saying, “Somalis live in large overcrowded housing units and most of them are likely to be out engaging on the doorstep.” The Independent newspaper also references the difference in housing between mainstream society and the Somali minority group, stating that more than half of Swedes live one per household, compared to the Somalis typically living in large family units.

Nur also comments about the health situation and lowered immune system in the aged saying, “People are living with three generations in the same house, since using a nursing home is not part of our culture.” Likewise, Nur explains that he has observed a poor diet among many Somalis, possibly contributing to increased susceptibility to the virus, and that Somali culture is very social, that, “If someone only lives by his or herself, Somalis see that as someone who is actually crazy.” He also comments on the issue of the language barrier, “The unknown language and the radio stations in Sweden are not working for them.”

30-year-old British Somali Deeqa, who lives in London and is the other female Somali to respond in these Facebook discussions, blames ignorance, ill-health in the elders in the community and that Somalis are concentrated and like to gather socially. She states, “Even if the person is COVID-19 positive, he or she believes that it is normal flu and they don’t self-isolate. Second, the Somalis in Sweden are concentrated in community center areas, where older people know each other and frequently visit one another. Likewise, the mosques and restaurants are not yet closed. Lastly, most of the Somali people over are 50 have diabetes or high blood pressure.”

Although this observation is anecdotal, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Somali refugees in the U.S. indeed have higher rates of hypertension and diabetes than the general population, and other studies have found PTSD in Somali first-generation immigrants to the U.S. who were tortured at home with one center finding men having unexplained heart attacks at relatively young ages.[4] 40-year-old Ibrahim Guled who lives in Stockholm, Sweden also asserts, “Somalis in Sweden are the least educated community among the Somali diaspora in the world, so a lack of low awareness and self-correction happened to them.”[5] In addition to that, Ibrahim Guled states. “Somalis are unpopular in this country and therefore, are unlikely to receive real health care service. Beside the foods they eat do not have enough nutrition to defend their health and immune system.” In reference to unpopularity, Ibrahim Guled is likely referencing prejudice and the fact that Somalis have also been overrepresented in Swedish statistics for those who joined ISIS and the fact that Swedish international workers have been killed by extremists in Somalia.

Religious Misdirection

There are reports from all over the world of fanatical religious preachers representing fringe elements of most of the major faiths telling their communities to continue coming to worship, even to take religious pilgrimages, that God will not allow them to fall ill. A Christian preacher of a mega-church in the United States, for instance, was arrested after holding large church services repeatedly during the U.S. quarantine.[6] Similarly, ultra-Orthodox Haredim in Israel have disregarded quarantine orders broadcast largely through the secular media, with leaders encouraging the community to continue attending large gatherings such as weddings and funerals.[7] In Israel, the ultra-orthodox are estimated to make up 12 percent of the population but are now turning up as 60 percent of the COVID-19 deaths, showing a similar trend to the Swedish Somali population.[8]

Extremist Muslim religious leaders around the world have also advised their followers to continue going on religious pilgrimages and to ignore health warnings from the authorities, stating that COVID-19 is a punishment for the unbelievers and will not touch Muslims. [9] For instance during March when Shia visit shrines in Iraq, controversial Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr opposed closing the shrines, and Sheikh Ali al-Samawi promised believers they would not be infected by the virus under any circumstances while encouraging them to attend. “Bring any infected person to me and let me kiss them and I’m quite sure that I won’t contract the virus, if he is a true follower of Imam Hussein [the third Shiite Imam and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad], Samawi announced in one of his sermons. An uptick of COVID-19 cases was therefore expected in Iraq during the Shia feast s as a result of Iranian pilgrims crossing the border without medical health checks and believers flocking together believing that they cannot be infected while on a religious pilgrimage.[10]

Othman queried about this as well: “Is there any public confidence that this disease would not occur to them, because they are Muslims?”

Somali Swedish Mustaf Salah answers,

“Very much so. Many people said that this disease is only meant to kill for non-Muslims thus, it cannot affect Muslims. Until today many people believe that myth. I’ve watched shows from Somali National TV televised where the reporter asked people playing and socialising at Lido beach in Mogadishu [Somalia] if they are unaware of corona virus. So many of those people answered, ‘We are Muslims! This disease will only kill non-believers.’ But they are wrong. If you are not careful COVID-19 will not differentiate between anyone based on their religion.”

25-year-old Somali Swedish Abdirahman Sayid, who is university educated, refers to the widespread Islamic belief in God-ordained fate:

“In my view, the reason why they did not take the government’s advice was that they intuitively listen to Somali clerics when it comes this intense wide spread of sickness and they say, ‘What is meant to happen to my health, it’s already ordained by Allah.’ But, the Quran never said, ‘Don’t look after yourself.’ They are misinterpreting the Quran.”

Abdirahman goes on to state, “A man we used to pray together with at the mosque called me and told me that the mosque is still open and that the café in the mosque is still working as well!!! It was amazing!”

In Iraq, doctors reported that some Iraqis who were diagnosed with COVID-19 took it as a social and religious disgrace, mixing the contagious aspects of COVID-19 with former ideas about the sexual spread of AIDs. As a result, Iraqi doctors found that patients who had COVID-19 responded to their health care workers with threats about their honor, and fled the hospital, refusing to be quarantined.[11] In this vein, 22-year-old Somali Towfiq Shire Muuse, who lives in Amsterdam, remarks about the general Somali ignorance of the Swedish quarantine but adds that social gathering seems to be preventing this type of stigmatization in the community:

“The Swedish government has ordered closures of businesses and mosques, but it appears that some Somalis are still going to mosques and making social gatherings. On the other hand, Somalis visit each other and share the pain with the sufferer so they avoid the patient feeling discriminated against or to feel that they are not to blame later on.”

Of course, this is can have dire results if those transmitting the illness do not take responsibility for infecting others in their communities.

One Somali sheikh listened to by some in the global diaspora, of particular concern for giving bad advice over the Internet, is Mohamud Abdi Umal. He broadcast in a YouTube video on February 28, 2020 the following message, translated below in its key points, to his followers throughout the world:

“The world today is in a state of panic, fear, shock, and despair, because today Allah sent a small army of His troops into the world called corona virus. The men who made the missile and made the navy, went to the moon, and reached the medical sciences very advanced levels in the world. [But,] in that world there was an invasion of a virus that the eye didn’t catch. Where is the Chinese power? Where is the power of the USA? Why don’t you get rid of the small virus? If you were arrogant yesterday, feel the pain today, which, you have made in your own hand.”

Mohamed Abdi also references religious faith, “Somalis pride themselves, and believe if they read some Quranic verses, they can avoid this disease, which is also told to them by the clerics who prevent community integration.” These clerics, according to Mohamed Abdi, encourage separation through business and schooling in Islamic madrasas. Mohamed Abdi says, “They encourage people not to hear the infidel statements—guidelines, which they say could lead Muslims astray.” These clerics, also according to Mohamed Abdi, encourage people to doubt all the government advisory measures about hand washing and other methods of prevention.

Summary

From this small informal polling in the Somali language on Facebook of the Somali global community and diaspora, it appears that there are four main factors to which the over-representation of the Somali Swedish community in COVID deaths in Sweden can be attributed. These include: 1) a culture of stubborn disregard of advice from authorities; 2) ignorance due to language barriers when that advice comes in languages other than Somali. Likewise, 3) the Somali diaspora’s tendency for large multi-generational families living in close quarters in a cold climate where some may wish to escape to cafes, outdoor stoops, mosques or other places to gather, or have to work. Thus, the community finds it harder to practice the necessary social distancing to protect from COVID-19. Moreover, some note that elders are nearly always cared for at home and that many Somalis over the age of 50 have significant pre-existing health conditions including diabetes and high blood pressure. Somalis also have a strong tradition for social gathering and a vibrant culture of mosque going; near constant family celebrations, especially weddings where large groups gather; and a strong belief in God. In this last regard, 4) extremist preachers on the Internet and on the ground have unfortunately encouraged disregard for Swedish prevention recommendations and social distancing, saying instead that one’s fate is ordained by Allah and that only non-Muslims will contract COVID-19.

Most of these issues are likely also active in other Muslim diaspora communities that have not integrated well across Europe and elsewhere, particularly those who may be religiously conservative and have members who follow religious preaching advising them to ignore government health advisories in relation to COVID-19. These likely can be addressed with good public policy measures that can first reach their target audiences by appealing to the diaspora communities in their own language. Likewise, they can gain better traction by educating and motivating religious influencers to speak up against extremists who wrongfully preach that Muslims (and other “true believers” in the cases of other religious groups) will not be harmed by COVID-19. Likewise, as the death-toll mounts, using multiple channels of communication, even Facebook and other social media platforms, to spread this news among the various age groups in the community, in their own language, can help a community that is very socially oriented, but also cherishes their elderly enough to refrain from social gathering for a time and to use hand-washing, masks and social distancing to better protect the vulnerable among them. This case example in Sweden teaches an important lesson that diaspora and religious communities may need special attention in times of pandemics. Furthermore, when religious extremists preach against government health advisories, measures need to be taken to counter their detrimental influence, before it is too late to prevent severe damage both to the diaspora community and the wider society.

About the Authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed  239 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners  as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting foreign governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org  Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Othman Mahamud, B.S. is a Somali Australian who has a BS in Security and Counter Terrorism from Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia and is embarking now on a Master’s degree in Psychology at Monash University, Melbourne. Othman works as a Junior Research Fellow with the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) helping to produce the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narratives in Somali and to campaign with them on Facebook to fight ISIS’s and al Shabaab’s online and face-to-face recruitment. He has worked at the AMNI Centre providing analysis and advice on issues pertaining to security and stability in Somali and the surrounding region as well as a security consultant to the Puntland Ministry of Security.  Othman also has worked as a Public Relations Officer for the Australian Federal Police in community engagement to prevent and recognize radicalization in the Somali Australian community.  He is fluent in English, Arabic and Somali.

Molly Ellenberg, M.A. is a research fellow at ICSVE.  Molly Ellenberg holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. At ICSVE, she is working on coding and analyzing the data from ICSVE’s qualitative research interviews of ISIS and al Shabaab terrorists, running Facebook campaigns to disrupt ISIS’s and al Shabaab’s online and face-to-face recruitment, and developing and giving trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos. Molly has presented original research at the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma and UC San Diego Research Conferences. Her research has also been published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

[1] Statistics Sweden. (2019, December 31) Foreign-born by Country of birth, sex and year of immigration. Retrieved from https://www.scb.se/en/finding-statistics/statistics-by-subject-area/population/population-composition/population-statistics/
[2] Personal communication with the authors’ sources from a medical worker in Stockholm, Sweden. See also: The New Arab (March 25, 2020) More Somalis are dying of corona virus in Sweden than any other group. https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2020/3/25/somalis-are-dying-of-coronavirus-in-swedenRadio Sweden (March 24, 2020). Swedish Coronavirus deaths increase, with concerns about Somali-Swedes in particular https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=7437072
[3] All names in this paper have been changed to protect the subjects privacy.
[4] Somali Refugee Health Profile. (2018, August 9). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/immigrantrefugeehealth/profiles/somali/index.html
[5] This statement is supported by: Carlson, B., & Chambers, S. (2017, May 23). A Tale of Twin Cities and Somalis being Trumped. Retrieved from https://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2017/05/tale-twin-cities-and-somalis-being-trumped/; Landes, D. (2012, November 5). Somalis fare better in the US than Sweden: report. Retrieved from https://www.thelocal.se/20121105/44236
[6] Burke, D. (2020, March 30). Police arrest Florida pastor for holding church services despite stay-at-home order. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/30/us/florida-pastor-arrested-river-church/index.html
[7] Halbfinger, D. M. (2020, March 30). Virus Soars Among Ultra-Orthodox Jews as Many Flout Israel’s Rules. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/world/middleeast/coronavirus-israel-cases-orthodox.html
[8] Estrin, D. (2020, April 1). Israel Faces Challenges In Fighting Coronavirus In Ultra-Orthodox Communities. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/04/01/825260941/israel-faces-challenges-in-fighting-coronavirus-in-ultra-orthodox-communities
[9] Al-Qaeda Central: COVID-19 Is Divine Punishment For Sins Of Mankind; Muslims Must Repent, West Must Embrace Islam. (2020, April 1). Retrieved from https://www.memri.org/reports/al-qaeda-central-covid-19-divine-punishment-sins-mankind-muslims-must-repent-west-must
[10] Kirkpatrick, D. D., Fassihi, F., & Mashal, M. (2020, February 24). ‘Recipe for a Massive Viral Outbreak’: Iran Emerges as a Worldwide Threat. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/24/world/middleeast/coronavirus-iran.html
[11] Personal communication with the authors’ sources in Iraq
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Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed ISIS (n=239) defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting with governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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