Sharing to ease a stigma

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 24, 2012 - 10:55 PM

Fartun Weli hopes her experience helps Somali women facing infertility to strip away any shame.

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Fartun Weli talked about her struggles conceiving a child at her Hopkins, MN home, Monday, April 16, 2012.(ELIZABETH FLORES/STAR TRIBUNE) ELIZABETH FLORES � eflores@startribune.com

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Fartun Weli knew something was wrong.

She and her husband, Jamal Mohamed, had been trying to have a baby for a few years. No luck. Then came hot flashes, night sweats and her doctor's diagnosis: Her ovaries were failing, and she was in menopause. At 32, her dreams of becoming a mother and, in her view, fulfilling her purpose as a Somali woman were shot.

She stopped meeting with other Somali women. Their constant questions and stares at her empty belly deepened her sense of failure. In America, infertility is a disappointment. In Somalia, it is shameful. Motherhood is a woman's "ticket of acceptance," she said, admission into a sorority and a sign they've achieved life's purpose.

From Weli's isolation, however, came a new mission. She reached out -- counseling other Somali women, starting a support group and beginning to strip away the cultural stigma surrounding infertility.

On Sunday, to mark the start of National Infertility Awareness Week, she was host of a community-wide discussion on the problem at Safari Restaurant & Banquet Center in Minneapolis.

"I said, well, there was a reason why maybe God's not giving me the babies. I have to do something else," Weli said. "Then I thought, there were so many nights when I sat somewhere and I had no support except Jamal. At least, let me create some kind of conversation about this topic."

'Incredibly taboo'

Dr. Abdirahman Mohamed knows the emotional pain of Somali women who are childless.

A Somali-born physician and chief of staff at AXIS Medical Center in Minneapolis, he sees many Somali patients who are having trouble conceiving and don't want anyone to know.

"It's an incredibly taboo issue,'' he said. "Women suffer in silence with this issue."

Somali women expect to start having children soon after they're married and to bear many children, Dr. Mohamed said. When that doesn't happen right away, the questions from community members begin, adding to the pressure and the stress.

Statistics show that one-third of all infertility cases stem from women's reproductive problems and one-third are caused by men's reproductive complications -- yet the prevailing perception within Somali circles is that the woman is responsible, Dr. Mohamed said.

Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive after one year of unprotected sex for women younger than 35 or the inability to carry a pregnancy to live birth, according to Dr. Deb Thorp, an ob/gyn specialist at Park Nicollet who also has many Somali patients.

The problem affects one in eight couples nationally, regardless of race and ethnicity, Thorp said.

One challenge for Somali women, Dr. Mohamed said, is that they will not easily accept the prognosis. They will consult other doctors, often seeking out a specialist at Mayo Clinic or somewhere in Europe -- or perhaps travel to Asia to try alternative remedies, he said.

A second issue is the fear of being labeled as a person who may be "cursed," he said.

Opening up

Like most women she knew, Weli always expected she'd become a mother.

She met her husband on a blind date nearly 10 years ago, got married and began planning for a family. He wanted three, four, maybe more children. She thought two or three were all she could handle. They worked and went to school, and when Weli reached age 30, she began to worry.

After she learned she was in early menopause, she started to panic.

"It kind of hit me -- no babies? Oh, my God. What next for me?" Weli recalled.

She also began to prepare herself for what she felt was inevitable -- her husband leaving her because of it.

Not once, Mohamed said, did he think of divorcing his wife. Finally, Weli began to believe him and relax. She also started to envision her life without children. "The more educated I became, the bolder I got and the more I said, 'No, I can live without babies. This will not define me.'"

She attended a meeting of the local chapter of RESOLVE, an organization that supports infertile couples. At the meeting, people openly spoke of their struggles and traded information.

Weli sought to create something similar especially for Somali couples. "It's become so secret that it's making us sick. So I thought, let's open it up," Weli said.

In Somalia, she said, women used to support one another through something called a "women's circle." If someone had just given birth or was sick or had some problem, all the women in the neighborhood would come to her house to sit with her, she said. They would take turns telling the woman a story to help her deal with the challenge.

In the fall of 2010, Weli started a nonprofit group to educate Somali women about infertility and other health issues. She started meeting women one-on-one in their homes or at coffee shops, then began holding monthly meetings at her apartment building in Hopkins. Last week, she moved into a new office in the Sabathani Center in Minneapolis. With the help of a $50,000 grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation, she hired consultants to create a strtegic plan.

Weli named her organization the Isuroon Project, using a Somali word that means a strong woman who takes care of herself.

At the meetings, women discuss all kinds of health issues, from infertility to diabetes to obesity to HIV. Weli said she fields phone calls from Somali women living as far away as London who have heard about Isuroon and want to talk about their infertility struggles.

"The more I felt confident in myself trying to talk to women about my experience, the more they would talk," she said. "Then I realized this has to change."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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