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Zack Mahboub speaks Wednesday to Chamber of Commerce members about cultural competency during a presentation at the Willmar Conference Center. Mahboub and his wife, Sahra Gure, own and operate a business that provides interpreting services and also cultural training. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

Local interpreting business expands services to offer instruction in cultural understanding

Business Willmar,Minnesota 56201
West Central Tribune
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Local interpreting business expands services to offer instruction in cultural understanding
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR — An interpreting business in Willmar has expanded its services to include cultural competency training.

Members of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce participated in cultural training last week from the owners of West Central Interpreting Services.

Over two hours, Zack Mahboub and Sahra Gure, husband and wife, explained some of the challenges faced by Willmar’s growing east African population. Increased understanding can help businesses serve their customers and attract new ones from minority communities, Mahboub said.

The couple opened their interpreting business in 2012 and recently added cultural training to their services. Mahboub has been in the United States since 1981 and Gure since 1991.

In their talk and during a question-and-answer session, they talked about the experiences of families who come here from refugee camps after fleeing the civil war in Somalia.

Mahboub told the group that the refugees coming to this country are resilient, “really strong-willed people; the weak ones don’t come.”

The civil war turned lives upside down. People have nothing when they arrive at a refugee camp and may not know where their family members are. “Gangs run the show,” he said. There is no protection from crime and no schools. Medical care comes from occasional visits from Doctors without Borders. Food is limited.

“You don’t know when it’s going to end,” he said. The United Nations resettles refugees, but no one knows if or when they will be chosen to leave.

Understanding something about where the refugees have been could help increase respect between the groups, he said.

New immigrants touch all areas of a community’s daily life, Mahboub said. “There’s no boundaries; we are all together in Willmar.”

Somalis in Willmar come from three general groups, Gure said. Most of them were nomads, others were farmers and a smaller group came from large cities.

“When the civil war came, everybody was affected the same,” she said. “Your past doesn’t mean anything.” A nomad with little formal education and an engineer would be side by side in a camp, and both would get the same treatment.

Refugees who arrive here may be dealing with stress and mental health issues from being caught up in the civil war or living in a camp. Some have horrific stories about what happened to family and friends along the way, Mahboub said.

The traditional Somali family structure is of a man who goes out and works and a wife who stays home to care for children and keep the family running.

But in the United States, “everything has changed,” Gure said. “The husband is no longer able to support the whole family, and everybody has to work.” If a family tries to stick to the traditional roles at home, it can lead to even more stress.

“Somali women are very, very strong, and men respect them,” she said. “Men don’t make decisions without consulting their wives.”

Mahboub said labor division is always difficult, and even more so in traditional families. “When I go out at 8 and she goes out at 8, it’s not fair for both of us to come home, and I wait for her to feed me,” he said.

Some of those traditions about labor division are changing, they said. They see it in their own home with their sons and daughter.

Gure explained some customs. Muslims do not eat pork or anything derived from pork. Their religion requires certain procedures be followed in the processing of meat.

Muslims are not allowed to drink alcohol, she said, but some do. Families are often at a loss to deal with alcoholism or mental health issues because it is so unfamiliar, she added.

The prevailing attitude toward mental health, depression or grief is that a person should be happy for what he or she has. That can be extremely difficult for women who have miscarried or someone who has lost a child, she said.

Gure talked about hand gestures, too. One that is a common American hand gesture, bending an index finger to call someone over, is considered an insult to a Somali person. That gesture refers to an inferior person.

The presentations last week were of a general nature for chamber members. Gure said they can tailor the presentation for a specific business. They offer training sessions for groups of up to 15 people in their office on the third floor of the Barn Theatre building. They also do on-site training for businesses, Mahboub said.

Reach West Central Interpreting Services at 320-235-0165.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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