In the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, the second largest home of East African refugees in the U.S., youth workers noticed some troubling trends.
“We were seeing young men in their early 20s using drugs, not going to college, ending up in prison,” said Jama Mohamed, Program Coordinator and Making Connections Project Lead at United Women of East Africa Support Team (UWEAST). “We kept having this conversation: ‘What do we need to do?’”
The loss of five young men in a string of suicides propelled the community to action. The United Women of East Africa, an organization originally created to serve refugee mothers and their children, reached out to other groups in the close-knit community and forged a partnership to address concerns facing young men as part of the Making Connections initiative. Partners include the African Coalition Workforce, Southern Sudanese Community Center, Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA), and Center for Community Health at the University of California, San Diego.
The UWEAST coalition is one of 16 selected from almost 250 to participate in Making Connections. Funded by Movember and led by Prevention Institute, Making Connections is leveraging the power of communities and connection to address conditions in the socio-economic, physical/built, and economic environment that can take a toll on mental heath.
“Suicide is rare back home,” said Jama, who was born in Somalia. “Over here, it’s a different environment. It has to do with the tremendous stress.”
Refugees who may have experienced traumatic events in East Africa often face yet another set of challenges when they arrive in the U.S., including lack of educational and economic opportunities, unsafe living conditions, and isolation. Further compounding the problems are stigmas in the East African communities around mental health and the challenges of transitioning to a different culture.
“It’s different to feel alone here,” Jama said. “It’s a more individualized culture; even brothers become strangers. We recognize people are not connected; somehow our cultural identity is being lost.”
With its Making Connections work, the UWEAST partnership plans to nurture the community’s natural resilience and connection—many of the partners are located within a couple blocks of one another—and foster leadership among its young men.
The first step, Jama said, has been to engage young men in the community in a series of conversations to understand the roots of the problems and challenges they face, and to develop community-level mental health and wellbeing strategies to help reduce their problems of greatest concern, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and suicide; and to help them avoid the cycle of gangs, drugs, and prison.
“There’s a need for more understanding about what is effective within the East African population,” he said. “We need to figure it out instead of guessing what is the best solution.”
The vision that is emerging is the Ethnic and Faith Based Community Center, a hub where community members would help one another develop the skills and resources they need to thrive, from information on tenants’ rights to college preparation courses to support for parents who want to learn how to talk with their sons about difficult issues like mental health.
“It has to be a holistic approach,” Jama said. “Culture needs to be recognized, faith needs to be recognized. Every organization involved with this world needs to be engaged. All the work we’re doing takes more than one person to accomplish; we have to all work together. “
The end goal, he said, is to shift the dynamic related to young men’s mental health, and to realize a future with more families engaging with schools, and more youth graduating from high school, getting accepted to college, and having better access to opportunities that allow them and their families to live in safe and healthy homes. Ultimately, he said, “This generation of young men can be resources within the community. “