A Profile of the Sub-Saharan African Youth & Family Services and an Interview with Mr. Ephraim Olani
By Hana Tesfaye-Berhanu
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The Sub-Saharan African Youth and Family Services of Minnesota was founded in 2002 and is committed to serving the African community (immigrants and refugees) with culturally and linguistically appropriate HIV/AIDS education and social services. SAYFSM stands behind the promise stated in the mission statement, “Our services are free, confidential, and nonjudgmental. We serve all Africans regardless of country or origin, culture, language and religion.”

SAYFSM is an organization that provides spiritual and emotional support groups for the clients. Groups meet twice a month, lasting from 2-3 hours, where they receive a variety of services that help meet their needs. The meeting times are typically divided into three different parts: fellowship and spiritual nourishment, which consists of prayer, singing, and encouragement; eating a meal together, where food is always provided; and emotional and wellness education, in which experts from the health field educate the group. Among the many opportunities and services, SAYFSM, in partnership with Lutheran Social Services, Minnesota Council of Churches, and World Relief, provides orientation for new African refugees.

Most, if not all, of the staff members at SAYFSM are African immigrants who, collectively speak 5 different languages, are well educated about HIV/AIDS, and are trained to understand the different cultures represented within the larger African community; aiming to remove barriers that have hindered Africans from receiving the proper education, medical care and supportive services for HIV/AIDS.  Staff members are dedicated and collectively work together in providing effective services for clients living with HIV/AIDS by not only meeting their basic needs, but by treating clients with respect and showing genuine care about their welfare.

facts2A few weeks ago I had the privilege of interviewing the Executive Director of SAYFSM, Ephraim Olani. Mr. Olani has been working at SAYFSM since it opened in 2002. In the course of our conversation, he was able to share the struggles and rewards of working with HIV/AIDS youth and families within the African community.

 The conversation with Mr. Olani started as something simple, and before we knew it, we had engaged in a deep conversation about a sensitive topic. After the interview, I left feeling a little more educated and invigorated; happy knowing services such as these are available for my people, Africans struggling to survive in the American society.

Hana: SAYFSM emphasizes on, “culturally appropriate services”, what exactly does that mean?
Mr. Olani: “Culturally appropriate” means that we are aware of and respect the different African cultures. We (Africans) know how to treat each other.
When new or regular customers walk through our doors, we don’t ask, “How can I help you?” We first greet them; offering coffee or tea; asking, “How are you?” How’s your wife/husband, children, work...etc. We try to make our clients feel as comfortable as possible by building relationships.

H: Why has it become such a taboo to talk about HIV/AIDS within the African community?
Mr. O.: It has much to do with how we grew up, how we were raised by our parents and sadly it has followed us overseas. Parents (who are around my age group) are uncomfortable talking to their children about safe sex and the many consequences and responsibilities that come with it. And because of the lack of communication, most of our children get the wrong information from the wrong places (television, movies, and friends).

H: What about those who aren’t parents; young couples, newlyweds?
Mr. O.: Its not just parents either. Young husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, don’t first go get tested, let alone talk about it (HIV/AIDS) and this too I feel has become generational. I think this has much to do with the fact that people, most Africans, in my opinion, view HIV/AIDS as a form of disrespect. You’re no longer looked at as a person. Your lover may leave and you’re automatically degraded by the community. Most people in relationships aren’t open about their past. And most don’t know they’ve been infected with the virus by previous partners…because they too didn’t get tested.

H: What are the main causes for this? Is it contributing to the growing number of AID/HIV cases in the Twin Cities?
Mr. O.: In our community (general African community) much has to do with the fact that it’s not accepted and AIDS/HIV is often hidden. Men don’t like to wear condoms and women don’t tell about pervious sexual partners. Most of the time young couples look at each others appearances and think, “oh he’s too cute or, she’s too pretty to have AIDS” They fail to realize that, one night can change your life. One time… that’s all it takes. 

H: How do you break the gap?
Mr. O.: It starts with the next generation. I’ve noticed that older people won’t come to programs and sessions we offer. If HIV/AIDS is mentioned as being part of a program we host, we know that they will not show up. Regardless of their stubbornness, one of the main things we try to do is “throw-in” brief educational segments about HIV/AIDS- every chance we get. Fortunately, I’ve noticed throughout the past few years that a handful of parents are gradually learning about HIV/AIDS through the media: health based newspapers and magazines and special television programs that focus on health and awareness. The young generation, your generation (he says to me) is more open and willing to learn…I hope it stays that way.

H: What is the most difficult aspect of your job?
Mr. O.: The stigma. I see clients that come in afraid that someone will see them at SAYFSM. I know it has much to do with the stigma that has been placed on HIV/AIDS victims.  It’s also challenging when you see people aren’t changing their lifestyle; refusing to take responsibility for themselves as well as for others.

H: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Mr. O.: Many have been saved through our educational programs. It’s rewarding to see those who have considered suicide, living a life fulfilled. Its rewarding seeing those who were emotionally depressed, rise through the education and services we provide. We have had clients get married, and in 2008, we welcomed three healthy babies into our community. These things fill your heart with hope.

H: Why do you continue to to do what you do?
Mr. O.: Because I know there is nothing else like this program that helps our people in so many ways. We are saving our children by educating the next generation and encouraging them to be responsible, good citizens. We (SAYFSM) have to be here to help…I have to be here to help.

H: What is the one message you would like to share?
Mr. O.: GET TESTED! Know your status and choose to know your status; there is no turning back once you know you have the virus. Most importantly, take precautions.

For more about SAYFSM, check out their website.

Hana Tesfaye-Berhanu was born in Nekemte, and moved to the United States at the age of five in 1990.  She is a 2007 graduate of Hamline University where she majored in English and minored in Education and Communication Studies. She has a passion of working with the youth and looks forward to becoming a teacher. She currently resides in the Twin Cities of Minnesota and is happily married to Ebassa Berhanu.