AIDS educators try to get beyond stigma

By Gregg Aamot

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- If he thought it would do any good, Redwan Hamza would run workshops at his community center here until every African immigrant got the message about preventing AIDS.

But Hamza, a refugee from the Oromo region of southern Ethiopia, knows his audience in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood all too well.

"There is such a stigma about AIDS that if we simply announce, 'Hey, come for AIDS education,' no one would show up!" he said with a shrug. "It's just not talked about."


The state Health Department is determined to crack through that silence after spotting an increase in new HIV cases among African-born immigrants. In 2001, 46 new cases were reported, compared with 28 new cases reported two years earlier. Twelve years ago, just seven cases were reported.

It won't be easy, however, to create a savviness about AIDS among immigrants who are bound by tradition and hold fast to religious taboos against discussing premarital sex and homosexuality.

"The thinking is, 'We left it in Africa,"' said Ribka Berhanu, an immigrant from Ethiopia who works at the Minnesota AIDS Project. "There's a lot of denial, a lot of fear. HIV is still a death sentence in Africa, so no one wants to talk about it."

As far as the Health Department has determined, the immigrants were infected while living in Africa, where in some countries one in three people has HIV or AIDS.

To make sure the infection isn't spread here, health officials invited leaders in the immigrant community to meet in May and consider ways to promote HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. About 40 Somalis, Ethiopians and others showed up.

"You can't just start handing out condoms without first increasing awareness," said Tracy Sides, a state epidemiologist. "The average American has been exposed to the AIDS issue for years, but you can't make that assumption for African communities."

Most of Minnesota's African immigrants are concentrated in the Twin Cities, with a handful in larger outstate cities such as St. Cloud and Duluth. The latest census data found as many as 35,000 African-born people living in Minnesota, many of them refugees from civil wars in Somalia and Ethiopia.

At the end of 2001, 266 Africans living in Minnesota had HIV or AIDS, health statistics show. In all, about 4,300 people in Minnesota, out of a population of about 4.9 million, were infected.

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