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A Minnesota health advocate’s crusade brings harmful skin lightening out of the dark

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STAT NEWS — MINNEAPOLIS — Karmel Square is a hub of the Somali community here, a colorful, cheerfully noisy hodgepodge of vendors and restaurants unofficially known as the Somali Mall. Amira Adawe stops by often to buy tea and chat in Somali with friends and relatives wearing hijabs and flowing, floor-length skirts. They greet her with smiles and hugs, and she calls them “auntie.”

Her visits are more than social, however. The public health advocate scans market shelves for skin lightening creams that may contain harmful toxins — tubes and jars sold under names such as Fair & Lovely, Prime White, and Miss Beauty 7 Days White.

Some women use the creams in hopes of erasing dark spots, but many rub them over their entire bodies multiple times a day in hopes of whitening their brown skin. The practice pervades many cultures in Africa, Asia, the Middle East — and many immigrant communities in the U.S. — and Adawe has made it her mission to end it.

She began her crusade as a graduate student, after she discovered that creams sold in many Twin Cities ethnic markets contained levels of mercury thousands of times higher than the amounts considered safe by the U.S. government. But her concerns go beyond the physical harm to women. She worries as much about the damage to their self-esteem.

newsnisideIn Somali and other cultures, the lighter-skinned daughter is often seen as more beautiful, Adawe explained recently; in fact, the Somali term for light-skinned — cadey — is considered a compliment. “It’s used as a term of endearment,” she said, “but I think it’s so wrong to say it.”

Public health agencies in several major cities have launched their own investigations of tainted skin creams, occasionally getting advice from Adawe along the way. And now Adawe has created The Beautywell Project, to combat the stigma faced by women with darker skin and take on the industry that promises them beauty in a jar.

By day, Adawe is now a manager for the Children’s Cabinet of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. In her “spare time,” she hosts a weekly radio show in Somali that reaches 80,000 people worldwide. She holds educational outreach sessions in Minneapolis and Kenya, talks with imams, and presents at national and international conferences. Sooner or later, most anyone connected with the skin-lightening issue seeks out Adawe. She fields personal pleas for help from Somali men in Minneapolis worried about their pregnant wives rubbing cream on their skin, as well as calls for help from Kenya, Canada, and Australia.

“We can’t address this issue without discussing beauty, what it means and ways to redefine beauty, as well as discussing and educating individuals about wellness,” she said in an interview.

She admits her goal is ambitious. The stigma runs deep, and skin-lightening creams are a multibillion-dollar business overseas, despite bans and public campaigns against the products in many African countries. In the U.S., creams are often smuggled in and sold in small, ethnic markets like at Karmel Square or purchased on the internet. They have been found in Somali, Hmong, Mexican, Dominican, and West Indies communities from California to Minnesota to New York. Users, and even sellers of the creams, are often unaware that they are harmful or illegal.

Somali women are reluctant to speak openly about skin lightening, and Adawe faced resistance when she began her research seven years ago. Her persistence impressed Jim Koppel, who was deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Health at the time.

“It’s a very tight-knit community, and this put her in a tough place,” he said. “It could have had a negative impact on the businesses [that sell the creams], both financially and potentially for legal problems, and was of great concern to her personal reputation. And she went ahead and did it and continues to speak out.”

“I had to be brave enough, and, fortunately, the community saw it as an issue” and supported her, Adawe said. “That means a lot to me.”

A topic few wanted to talk about

One recent afternoon, Adawe was 35 minutes into her radio show, broadcast from the studio of KALY, 101.7 FM, a Somali-American station tucked into a corner of the International Bazaar in Minneapolis. She had been talking nonstop about skin lightening, peppering her fluent Somali with a few English words — endocrine system, mercury, hydroquinone, prescription.

Then she turned to the phones, murmuring in understanding as she listened to a female caller from a Minneapolis suburb. Do you have any more feedback, Adawe asked in Somali.

“Women who practice skin lightening and who have experienced skin damage or illness should come to the radio and discuss their experience without disclosing their names,” the caller said in Somali.

Adawe nodded. The topic of skin lightening is a delicate one, both overseas and in immigrant communities in the U.S. While the stigma associated with dark skin is deep, admitting to using skin-lightening creams is also taboo, thwarting efforts to track the prevalence of the practice. As adept as Adawe is at navigating the delicate social norms and customs of the Somali-American community she’s part of, when she began her research in 2011, she could find only seven women who would talk about their use of skin creams.

It was in those interviews that women told her that they apply the creams to their entire bodies three times a day, sometimes while pregnant or breastfeeding. Most mixed several creams together and stored them in the refrigerator.

Adawe had been suspicious of the creams since her childhood. Growing up in Mogadishu and Minneapolis in a health-minded family (her mother was the head of the maternal and child health bureau in Somalia), she watched with concern when friends’ and relatives’ skin reddened or grew discolored from using skin lighteners. Adawe is grateful for the message she received growing up with the darkest skin of three daughters: “I’m so fortunate I came from a family who embraced me for who I am,” she said.

When Adawe became a county public health educator and a graduate student at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, she was finally in a position to act on her concerns. She purchased 27 samples of creams to test for the toxins she suspected were present.

The tests confirmed Adawe’s fears, revealing that 11 of the products contained mercury, a known neurotoxin. Mercury has been banned in skin-lightening products by the Food and Drug Administration since 1973; the legal limit is 1 part per million. Adawe still remembers the shock she and the pollution control agency specialists who did the testing felt when they saw the results reaching 33,000 parts per million.

FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said mercury is on a short list of prohibited ingredients in cosmetics. “The FDA has been aware of mercury as a potential allergen, skin irritant and neurotoxin for decades,” she said in an email.

Poisonous to the nervous, digestive, and immune systems, it is often found in unlabeled or mislabeled creams; sometimes it’s listed as “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” or “mercurio.” Just touching a washcloth or a mother’s cheek that has been rubbed with the products could be harmful to a baby, the FDA notes, interfering with brain and nervous system development.

Yet the agency was able to inspect only 0.3 percent of 3 million cosmetics shipments last year, and it tested just 364 products even though “adverse findings” are discovered in 15 percent to 20 percent of the products tested, the FDA said last June in a letter to New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone Jr.

Even skin-lightening products sold legally in the U.S. often contain ingredients other countries recognize as potential health hazards, Adawe said. Hydroquinone, a potential carcinogen that is banned in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere, is often found in the creams, as are steroids, which can cause acne, thinning of the skin, and hypertension.

Adawe’s testing in 2011 triggered immediate action: The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency cracked down on suppliers (in a raid on one popular store, inspectors found about 20 boxes full of products that contained mercury); the FDA investigated; and the Minnesota Department of Health warned of the danger.

Elsewhere in the country, similar scenarios were playing out. Alerted through data from local and national surveys, health departments embargoed products, conducted home visits, and notified manufacturers and health agencies in other countries. In New York, for example, after finding eight skin creams with mercury after inspecting products from 22 stores, city health workers now visit stores incognito to identify products of concern, said Wendy McKelvey, executive director of environmental health surveillance and policy.

Once notified of the dangers, there’s “pretty good compliance,” McKelvey said. “They’re not wanting to sell hazardous products.”

Adawe is often consulted because she understands and is trusted by the affected community.

“I think it’s extraordinary what she’s doing,” said Lori Copan, a research scientist for the California Department of Public Health. “A person from the community is a much better spokesperson than someone working in a public health department in terms of motivating and speaking the language and being one of them. It would be fantastic for all of us in public health if we had a community leader like Amira.”

The value of that cross-cultural competence is often in the details. Inspired by Adawe’s study, an ongoing biomonitoring project in Minnesota looking at chemical exposure in pregnant women and babies now tracks urinary mercury. With Adawe’s input, the program has fine-tuned details such as how to phrase questions in surveys about use of creams.

“If you ask directly, ‘Do you use it?’ they will never, ever answer,” Adawe said. To get at the truth, she said, it’s better to start by asking what kind of moisturizer they use.

Initial results of the yet-to-be-published study show that more than 30 percent of pregnant Asian women who spoke Hmong in their interviews had high levels of mercury and received special follow-up to help them reduce their exposures. “The higher levels were likely from using skin-lightening creams and eating certain kinds of fish higher in mercury,” said Jessica Nelson, an epidemiologist and program manager at the Minnesota Department of Health, where Adawe works as a legislative liaison. (The Somali portion of the study isn’t finished yet.)

Adawe isn’t resting: She’s happy that skin lightening has been established as a public health issue. Still, Adawe said there’s plenty more to be done. Next up, she said, is trying to reframe what it means to be beautiful. She’s developing a curriculum for schoolgirls and outreach sessions focused on men, teenagers, and new teachers, which will revolve around the question: How do we change the narrative of what is beauty?

“My dream is that every woman stops using skin-lightening creams and trying to change their color,” she said, “and that they are happy for who they are.”

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Minnesota

When radicalization lured two Somali teenagers … from Norway

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Mukhtar Ibrahim

In October 2013, two Somali teenage girls named Ayan and Leila shocked their parents by running away to join ISIS in Syria. Their radicalization story is unusual in that it happened in Norway.

Acclaimed Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad spent years researching what happened. Now her book, “Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad” is available in the United States.

Seierstad, who discusses her book Monday night at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, said she didn’t go looking for the story.

“The story actually came to me,” she said. “It was the father of the girls who actually wanted the story to be written.”

His name is Sadiq, a Somali man who worked for years to bring his family to Norway. He hoped for a better life. He thought things were going well, then everything collapsed when Ayan and Leila disappeared.

When the girls left home, their parents were in shock, Seierstad said. “They hadn’t understood what was this about. Why? And then as months went by and they got to learn more about radicalization, they realized that all the signs had been there. That the girls were like a textbook case of radicalization. And he [Sadiq] wanted the book to be written to warn others, to tell this story to warn other parents.”

It is a perplexing story. Ayan and Leila were bright, and opinionated. They didn’t put up with being pushed around.

“And that is somehow part of why they left, in their logic,” said Seierstad, adding that the girls were convinced Syria and ISIS offered a chance of eternal life.

“They believed that life here and now is not real life. Real life happens after death. And this life is only important as a test. So the better your score, the better you behave in this life, the better position you will have in heaven for eternity. So isn’t that better?”

Seierstad is known for her in-depth reporting. Her book “One of Us,” about Anders Breivik, the gunman who killed 77 people in Norway’s worst terror attack, is an international best-seller.

When published in Norway Seierstad said, “Two Sisters” became the top-selling book for two years running. What pleases her most is the breadth of her readership. She gets email from young Somali girls, and also from government officials who want to prevent future radicalization.

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Ilhan Omar documentary among Minnesota projects headed to New York’s Tribeca Film Festival

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STAR TRIBUNE — Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival will have more than a touch of Minnesota this year. Two projects shot largely in the state will be part of the event that runs from April 18-29 in New York City.

“A Time for Ilhan,” by documentary filmmaker Norah Shapiro, chronicles Ilhan Omar’s successful bid to win election to the Minnesota House of Representatives, making her the first Somali-American, Muslim woman to hold state office in the United States.

In addition, Rosemount native Naomi Ko will be shopping a pilot for a potential series. “Nice,” which was mostly shot in the Twin Cities, stars Ko as a young Korean-American woman who faces a crisis when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Ko, who appeared in the 2014 indie hit “Dear White People,” is hoping screenings at the festival will attract a streaming service or network that will green-light an entire season.

The festival, now in its 17th year, will also feature new documentaries about Gilda Radner and the New York Times, as well as high-profile feature films, including the sci-fi romance “Zoe,” starring Ewan McGregor, last seen showing off his Midwest accent in “Fargo.”

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After charges in Justine Damond killing, racial dynamic remains a focal point

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STAR TRIBUNE — To some, the question loomed large as a former Minneapolis police officer was charged in the killing of an unarmed woman: Would the charges — the first in a case involving a fatal shooting by police in recent Hennepin County history — have come if the officer hadn’t been black and Somali-American and the victim hadn’t been white?

An intense debate over the shooting’s uncommon racial dynamic has played out among police reform activists, in the city’s Somali malls and among the police department’s own officers. Even some passionate proponents of police accountability balked at celebrating the murder and manslaughter charges against Officer Mohamed Noor, saying they reflected the justice system’s racial bias as much as previous local decisions not to charge cops who kill in the line of duty. Some Somali-Americans worried their community, rather than the use of deadly force by an officer, will end up on trial.

But others said the charges are a clear win in the push for more scrutiny of police use of force and possibly the beginning of a tougher approach to law enforcement accountability. Noor shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old Australian spiritual healer and meditation coach, minutes after she called police to report a suspected sexual assault in her southwest Minneapolis neighborhood.

“There have been numerous shootings that the community felt were unjustified and this one with Ms. Damond is one of them,” said Nathaniel Khaliq, past president of the St. Paul NAACP. “I hope it lowers the threshold for officers to be charged in deadly shootings.”

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced the charges Tuesday, more than eight months after Damond’s killing and nearly two years to the day after he declined to charge two white officers in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Jamar Clark. Damond’s family welcomed the charges, calling them “one step toward justice for this iniquitous act.”

Criticism of the charges

On the question of the Noor charges at Remix Barber and Beauty shop in Minneapolis Friday morning, the predominantly black clientele was in near-agreement: After years of pressure for more accountability in fatal officer shootings, a black cop had been made the fall guy. Customers and co-owner Chanda Tolbert said the charges came as no surprise given the races of the officer and the woman who was shot.

“Race has everything to do with it,” customer Teena Hill said. “It’s not a justice system for us.”

Reaction at nearby Jones and Jones Barber Shop, only a block from the site of Clark’s shooting in 2015, echoed that sentiment. “If it was a white police officer shooting a black man, he wouldn’t have been charged,” said Rob Hannah as he waited to get a haircut. “The system fails us a lot.”

Added owner A.J. Turner, “The Somali community needs to be in an uproar. I would be.”

Talk about race and perceived racial bias has lit up Somali community members’ social media accounts, animated coffee shop conversations and brought a couple of emotional impromptu community meetings in the days following the charges. Some have questioned whether Noor was treated differently from other cops who have killed in the line of duty, alleging a rush to judgment absent after other police shootings.

“A lot of the community is saying that if it’s Michael or David, he’s not going to be guilty today,” said Mahamed Cali, who runs KALY 101.7 FM, a Somali-American radio station.

After months of silence, the Somali American Police Association (SAPA) last week criticized the charges, suggesting Freeman had bowed to political pressure ahead of his re-election bid later this year. In an interview, Waheid Siraach, acting spokesman for SAPA, said the case raises legitimate questions about racial bias.

He pointed to former Police Chief Janeé Harteau’s news conference several days after the shooting in which she condemned Noor’s actions before an investigation had been completed. He also noted a cellphone video of Freeman criticizing the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for its handling of the case and telling activists in a taped conversation that to make a charging decision would be “the big present I’d like to see under the Christmas tree.”

“The aggressiveness, the ruthlessness with which Freeman went after this case, and personally Noor, it’s completely different from how they went after other cases,” Siraach said.

Privately, some Somali-American officers complained they were called in to testify before the grand jury simply because of their ethnicity. They spoke about several racially charged incidents in the department in the aftermath of Damond’s shooting, including disparaging comments about Somalis made by a white sergeant on Facebook, which were investigated last month.

Officers and community activists such as Omar Jamal also criticized Noor’s Tuesday firing, which they said sends a strong message to potential jurors. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Federation, usually an outspoken advocate of officers accused of wrongdoing, remained largely silent about the Noor matter for months.

Some in the Somali community worry about a broader backlash, noting feverish speculation in some corners of the internet and elsewhere that Noor’s religion and ethnicity motivated the shooting. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann called Noor an “affirmative-action hire by the hijab-wearing mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges,” and insinuated that Noor may have shot Damond for “cultural” reasons.

Others decried the case as a possible setback in law enforcement efforts to engage with the East African community and recruit officers from its ranks, an initiative that has received international recognition.

“A lot of young people wanted to be a police officer, but they’re rethinking it now,” said Cali, citing his own son as an example. “A lot of young people are saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be [the next] Mohamed.’ ”

Some prominent black police reform advocates are speaking out in Noor’s defense. Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist in Minneapolis, noted that 11 days before Damond was shot, on-duty New York City police officer Miosotis Familia was shot and killed as she sat in an RV police command vehicle in the Bronx. During roll calls across the country, Edwards said, officers were told to be on the lookout for situations in which they could be ambushed, to “have their weapons prepared.”

“In those tragic few seconds, officers were following their orders,” he said, adding, “Justice was not served, but I wasn’t surprised.”

Support for the charges

But the response to the charges in Twin Cities communities of color is far from uniform. For some, the bottom line is that a police officer is being held accountable in the death of an unarmed civilian. They feel the case has helped broaden the call for police and criminal justice reform — and could serve as a rallying cry for a community still reeling from the 2016 shooting death of St. Paul school cafeteria worker Philando Castile by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Yanez was acquitted last year on manslaughter charges.

Farhio Khalif, a Somali-American women’s advocate, said she welcomed the charges against Noor as a chance to get to the bottom of what happened the night Damond was killed.

“My solidarity is with the Damond family. Justine has to be given her justice,” she said.

Khalif says that to her, Noor was simply a Minneapolis officer who shot an unarmed woman, and she voiced disappointment that much has been made in the public discourse of his Somali-American background. She said she trusts that the justice system will handle the case without regard to Noor’s race and background.

Some black community advocates also said they are heartened by the charges.

“Just because racist white folks do terrible things to black folks, we don’t have to act like them,” said Mel Reeves, one of the leaders of an unsuccessful campaign pushing Freeman to indict two officers in the Clark shooting. “I don’t support wrong. Clearly, if officer Noor shot Justine Damond, he should be punished.”

All eyes now turn to Noor’s upcoming prosecution. The proliferation of video and other factors have increased pressure on prosecutors around the country to not only charge but convict officers involved in controversial shootings, according to Justin Nix, who has studied police use of force at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Yet, convictions remain uncommon.

Much remains unknown in the Damond case, which was not captured on video because the officers’ body cameras were turned off at the critical moment. Still, Nix said there appeared to be enough evidence to support charges, regardless of the victim and officer’s race.

“If you separate race from that and you just look at those facts, this is one of those very questionable cases in which charges might be pursued,” he said.

Staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.

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