Saturday November 3, 2018
A satellite office of the Center for Victims of Torture will soon open in St. Cloud to serve Somali refugees affected by decades of civil war.
The Center for Victims of Torture was founded in 1985, and the U.S. headquarters are in St. Paul.
The center provides direct care for those who have been tortured, trains others to prevent and treat torture and advocates for human rights and an end to torture.
Staff hope the St. Cloud office can eventually offer wider community education and help area institutions become more culturally informed, said Andrea Northwood, director of client services.
"We're really not interested in coming in from the outside and providing any kind of quick fix," Northwood said. "What we're interested in is sustainable change for the St. Cloud ... as a whole."
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The center has been working in the St. Cloud area since 2015, when it received a grant to assess community needs, Hassan said. They knew there was a need.
"We were getting lots of requests for services that we couldn't meet," Northwood said.
Torture is the intentional infliction of physical or psychological pain and suffering by any member or official of the state in power. Torture can also be called for or allowed to occur by officials, who fail to stop it.
The center started slow with its work in St. Cloud and relied on word-of-mouth to get the community interested in services, she said. It's one way to approach communities significantly affected by torture or trauma.
"Trust has been destroyed," Hassan said. "So it's going to take a long time to rebuild."
In the classes, center staff can help parents understand their trauma and how to cope with it.
"(We) teach them skills to stay calm and gain control over their own emotions while dealing with their children," Hassan said.
The center also helps them get in touch with their and others' emotions.
"Mental health is still a huge stigma in the community," Hassan said. "So often the parenting classes was a non-stigmatizing way to ... address self care and mental health."
The office will have two full-time staff, including Hassan, and and another full-time community educator and psychotherapist who understands Somali culture.
Funding for the new office comes from three sources:
$50,000 from the Otto Bremer Foundation to be used in fiscal 2019.
$300,000 from the Minnesota Department of Human Services to be used over three years.
Roughly $54,000 of the Center for Victims of Torture general operating funds for fiscal year 2019.
Parenting classes as mental health care
Initially, the center spent months speaking with Somali community members and those who interact with them, including mental health providers, teachers, law enforcement, school counselors, adult basic education and English-language teachers.
Hassan found that many were requesting parenting help.
The needs are similar to what's been found among torture and trauma victims across the world. Northwood started working with the center 23 years ago, with Cambodian refugees.
"The issues were fundamentally the same. The parents were told what they couldn't do, that they could not use the methods that they had used traditionally," Northwood said. "But they weren't told what they were supposed to replace those with."
Many Somalis came to the U.S. thinking children have more rights than parents. The language barrier doesn't help.
"They're worried about losing their kids to child protection," Hassan said. "They get this idea that you're not even allowed to talk to your child or you tell them to do a chore. ... They wanted to be empowered again, as parents."
They come to the class voluntarily and, because of the communal nature of Somali life, pass along their knowledge to friends and family.
Ultimately, Somali parents just want their kids to succeed in America.
"Everybody wants their kids to contribute, learn and grow. The ultimate goal is to belong and contribute and to fit into your community," Hassan said.
Parents also have to relearn how to function as full humans, with a full range of emotions.
"Back home, if you have a roof over your head and you have food, you shouldn't complain," Hassan said.
Parents have to learn to check in with their kids, talk about feelings and develop a vocabulary for emotions.
"We have heard this over and over again from the moms in the classes," Northwood said. "They didn't know that was an important thing to do, or didn't have the chance ever to learn how to do that with their kids."
Trauma manifests itself differently
Emotions can be a luxury in a war zone or refugee camp, where day-to-day survival is more difficult.
"In a life-threatening circumstance, as the Somali community experienced over and over with civil war and living in very deprived, dangerous environments in refugee camps for years, the human being adapts to constant danger and threat," Northwood said.
The behavior that helped them survive in those situations don't work as well in an environment of safety. They might overreact to perceived threats.
"You have parents whose nervous systems are fundamentally organized to respond to threat very fast and very effectively," Northwood said. But in places of safety, thinking needs to be slowed down.
Constantly being on guard can also be physically damaging. Humans aren't designed to live with never-ending high levels of stress.
"People who have been through chronic war really need to relearn and practice to feel safe in their own skin and their own community," Northwood said.
Trauma changes how kids react to stress, too. It can look different from how adults react and also be disguised, Northwood said. The obvious behaviors including acting out, not obeying adults and being aggressive.
"What often gets missed is kids who are turning that anger inward, and are very outwardly quiet perhaps, but quite depressed and sad inside," Northwood said.
Locally, they've heard from moms about the prevalence of eating disorders, which is another example of anger, fear and lack of control turned inward.
Children who experience trauma sometimes don't meet developmental milestones.
"Because the child is so consumed with stress internally that they're not able to make the progress they would otherwise," Northwood said.
People observing the behavior of trauma victims can also misinterpret behavior.
"Even when a behavior has no obvious connection to trauma, for a community like the Somali community that has been through so much, you just need to have that hypothesis in the forefront of your mind no matter what the outward behavior looks like," Northwood said.
Cultural differences amplified here
The center has plans beyond parenting classes and mental health services.
Staff wants to help grow the number of Somali mental health providers in the area by keeping those who get their degree here. Many end up leaving because they can't find jobs.
The center hopes to bolster the community's knowledge of trauma and how it impacts people. The center was already asked by local imams to speak at area mosques.
"They requested us," Hassan said. "They were overwhelmed with some of the things that they were seeing, so they wanted some explanation and some understanding of mental health."
Those visits were a good place to speak with Somali men, as the parenting classes have mostly been women.
"We found physical explanations to be very useful, to make it less abstract," Northwood said. "So we would bring a diagram of the human brain and talk about the basic ways in which traumatic memories are stored ... in different places of the brain than ordinary memories."
Center staff hope this and other efforts will eventually improve relations between Somali residents and the wider community.
They know St. Cloud's situation isn't unique, Northwood said. Wherever there are refugees, cultural tensions inevitably arise.
"It's very common for these kinds of misunderstandings, miscommunications and ... gaps to happen when you've got two cultures interacting, neither of which has been prepared how to communicate effectively and supportively with the other," she said.
The particulars of St. Cloud's situation — drastically different religions, climates and racial backgrounds — make the challenges a little more amplified.
"You ... have a perfect storm of racial and religious difference. ... That kind of intensifies things, but the underlying dynamics and issues are the same," Northwood said.
The negative impacts and incidents tend to get emphasized. But the community is thriving, Hassan said.
"Yes, they're still experiencing some struggles, in adapting to Central Minnesota, but there's still a community," Hassan said, who moved to the area as a child in 2000.
"When we first moved here, there was barely anything," she said. "The community has grown so much."
No matter what, both are impressed by the resiliency of the Somali community.
"These are the survivors," Northwood said. "By definition, they possess enormous resources and strength within themselves."