By Mohamoud A. Hussein
Tuesday October 27, 2015
Over the past two decades, there has been a vast influx of Somali
refugees and immigrants making their new homes in Minnesota, with the overwhelming
majority residing in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. While
official estimates indicate that less than 60,000 Somalis are in Minnesota, it
is well accepted that there are, in fact, closer to 70,000 – 85,000. It is difficult to pinpoint
the exact number due to limitations in census data collection and the continual
growth resulting from such factors as secondary migration. Since Minnesota has
welcomed African immigrants, family members who live in other states within the
U.S. and Canada continue to join many newly arrived families already in St.
Paul and Minneapolis. The prospect of Somali immigrants and refugees returning
to their homelands is unlikely. Continuing war, civic strife and economic
crises make the outlook for return to Somalia bleak indeed. Therefore it is
important that Minnesota continue to embrace and welcome Somalis into the
community and assist in their acculturation process.
The challenges facing Somali immigrants and refugees in the Twin Cities
are complex and their needs are great. Besides facing enormous cultural and
language differences, African immigrants and refugees contend with racism,
often have limited literacy skills, and hold jobs where they barely earn
minimum wage and have difficulty providing for their families. It is
particularly difficulty in cultures such as Somali where adults are not
accustomed to learning from children. When children have English language
proficiency and parents don't, this creates an imbalance of power in the
family, which makes parenting and acculturation very stressful and confusing.
Another dynamic in families occurs when a parent, usually the father, has lost
his stable role as primary breadwinner. When resettling in a different culture,
previous work skills are often not easily transferable. As a result it is often
very difficult for a parent with little or no English language ability to
secure a job. When parents require financial assistance from the government
they usually feel distressed that they are not providing for their families.
This can lead to feelings of guilt, humiliation, and worthlessness.
Somalis with mental illness are socially isolated. The pain of this isolation
is felt intensely because Somali culture is traditionally communal and family
oriented. While a person with mental illness may be ostracized from the
community, their fear of stigma may be even more powerful. Whether the
ostracism is created by the community or self-imposed due to anticipated
negative responses, social isolation creates a profound worsening of mental
illness. This social isolation can be very disorienting and can make the
process of healing very difficult. In fact, even without prior mental health
problems, isolation from community alone can contribute to the development of
depression and mental illness.
of War Trauma
U.S. Surgeon General's report Mental
Health: Culture, Race, Ethnicity - Supplement highlighted the overwhelming
burden of mental illness that racial and ethnic minorities face compared to
their American counterparts. Immigrants and refugees often have
encountered additional stressful events that contribute to mental illness or
adjustment problems. Immigrants and refugees experience multiple losses including
loss of homeland and loss of loved ones. Immigrants, and most certainly
refugees, have likely endured one or more of the following traumatic events
prior to resettlement: malnutrition or famine, violence, political persecution
and torture. Often trauma goes untreated until long after resettlement. Past
trauma and current adjustment challenges increase the risk of developing
behavioral and mental health problems.
Psychosocial support during the
acculturation process increases the likelihood of positive adjustment and
cultural adaptation. Providing mental health treatment in the context of
culture and religion creates a familiarity important for engaging the community
and has proven to be effective. The need for more effective mental health
services for Somalis is great. Expanding the capacity of Somali and mainstream
mental health providers should continue to be a primary focus for our mental
health service systems here in Minnesota. Improving our ability to meet the
needs of the Somali community is principal as we hold them as legitimate and
permanent members of our community.
1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
(1999). Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD:
Mohamoud A. Hussein
MA Health and Human Service
Clinical Social Worker (LGSW)