Amal Hassan is CVT’s community educator.
In the Somali community it is rare to trust others with your emotional problems because of the stigma: people will think you are crazy and talk about you. People in my community associate mental health issues with not being able to work or forgetting your social security number. Basically being identified as having a mental health problem is equal to having no purpose in America.
Additionally, in our culture mothers especially take pride in taking care of others, sometimes to the detriment of themselves.
In recognition of the growing need for refugee support in the community, two years ago CVT applied for and received a grant to address the behavioral health needs of refugees and immigrants in St. Cloud, MN, primarily focusing on the Somali population.
In a city of just 60,000 people – one that has historically been heavily German and Catholic – there are now roughly 10,000 Somali community members.
When CVT started working in St. Cloud, a common need quickly emerged – the Somali community members we were working with named parenting in the United States as their biggest fear. It was also apparent that mental health issues – depression, sleeplessness, anxiety – were present in the mothers we were working with, but the tools to manage these symptoms of trauma were not.
So while parenting classes might not seem like an obvious intervention to heal the effects of torture, it was a way for us to address mental health concerns without talking directly about mental health.
Currently we offer classes that are free of charge for Somali mothers. The classes run for ten weeks. Classes focus on such topics as empowering and encouraging parents about their parental rights, parenting techniques and teaching news skills to help eliminate corporal punishment.
I run four classes, with a total of 42 attendees. We hold the parenting classes where many of the attendees take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. This way these groups are held in a nonthreatening environment that is easy to access.
I spend a lot of time teaching deep breathing. How to take a deep breath may seem obvious to all of us, but when someone experiences trauma like torture, these skills can be lost. I remember asking one woman to take a deep breath but all she could do was take quick, shallow breaths. We had to help her visualize taking deep breaths with her whole body, and ultimately relearn how to do so.
The classes also help mothers address crises that arise. When President Trump was elected, the people in my community were so afraid. Many of them didn’t have their green card yet, and they were worried about being able to stay in the country. Some people had approval for their families to come to the United States to join them, but then this opportunity was revoked.
There were other crises too, like the mall stabbing in St. Cloud over a year ago, or the recent bombing in Mogadishu. Too many in our community have seen their mosques vandalized or been intimidated on the street. We often stop our classes to help the women process these experiences and find a healthy way to manage their reactions.
As we’ve built trust among the group, I’ve seen the mothers I work with slowly start to open up and talk about other deeply held traumas, too, like the war atrocities or torture they’ve experienced. The stigma of “mental health” starts to fade away.
Still, there is plenty more work to be done. Our work in St. Cloud is just beginning.