Chicago-area groups help Afghan refugees with mental health issues


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Chicago-area organizations, such as the Muslim Women Resource Center, provide counseling sessions and interpretive services to help the recent influx of Afghan refugees into the area and address mental health issues.

Ayesha Quraishi, mental health coordinator at the Muslim Women’s Resource Center, said the organization’s Rogers Park waiting room office is often crowded with Afghan refugees.

But she said many of these refugees are not there for the legal services and resettlement assistance the office provides. They are just there to say hello.

The MWRC is one of many local organizations helping newly arrived Afghan refugees facing mental health issues. Since last August, the center has helped more than 2,100 Afghan families after the United States withdrew its troops from Afghanistan. Local group leaders said Afghan refugee stress often stems from years of war at home, guilt over fleeing to Chicago with a family stuck in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and struggles to s adjust to life in the United States.

“I watched my community completely crumble in August, and a part of me crumbled as well when I watched everything unfold in Afghanistan,” said Quraishi, who is Afghan-American.

Heartland Health Centers, a community health service with 18 locations in North Chicago and the suburbs, began providing initial mental health screenings to refugees in January. The protocol includes a screening that identifies emotional distress, said Jehan Adamji, the center’s new clinical director of refugee and immigrant health.

According to Adamji, refugees face multiple levels of stress. Many first experienced trauma after living through years of war and perhaps losing family members, then struggled as they fled Afghanistan in August. Refugees often spent months in refugee camps or US military bases. Once in the United States, refugees face the stress of finding a job, sending their children to school, and the culture shock that comes with moving to a new country.

The Quraishi program at MWRC works with professional psychiatrists to help refugees combat these sources of distress through individual and group counselling.

“There are a lot of things refugees share with the clinician that they wouldn’t normally share with the case manager because the clinician asks the right questions, Quraishi said.

Quraishi hired Dr. Urooj Yazdani, a pediatric psychiatry researcher at the University of Chicago, to run a “hotel clinic” for refugees who have just arrived in the area and are temporarily staying at a local hotel.

As a Pakistani immigrant, Yazadani said she faced many of the same challenges as her patients when she came to the United States.

“You think you belong to two different societies and you identify with both but don’t belong in either,” Yazdani said. “That experience in itself when I was growing up was hard to reconcile.”

The language barrier also presents obstacles for refugees, Quraishi said. Although most patients only speak Pashto and Dari, she said there are no Afghan therapists in Illinois. MWRC has interpreters on staff for counseling sessions and to build relationships with refugees, whom Quraishi calls “interpreter-slash-mentors”.

“(The interpreters) go to the ER in the middle of the night,” Quraishi said. “We had a week where every night we were in the ER because there was no real mental health support.”

Quraishi is now working with Autumn Cabell, an assistant counseling professor at DePaul University, to develop a digital library of mental health resources for refugees, translated into Pashto and Dari. The archive will include everything from videos about PTSD symptoms to information about the US school system.

Cabell also began hosting group therapy sessions in partnership with MWRC in March.

Cabell graduate students run sessions for up to 18 refugees. Students are first taught ‘anchoring strategies’, which are techniques designed to help refugees cope with stress. Each session has a designated topic, such as coping with loss or coping with specific challenges in the United States

“It not only helps them focus on the challenges they’re facing, but also the things they’ve already overcome,” Cabell said.

At the MWRC offices on Devon Avenue, refugees often wait outside for hours to greet Quraishi’s mother, MWRC founder Sima Quraishi, and other staff.

This short and simple connection helps them cope with the isolation of being in a whole new place and not knowing what to expect, Quraishi said.

“There are situations where I couldn’t sleep at night because you hear stories that just send shivers down your spine,” Quraishi said. “The best way to help is just to be there for them.”

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Twitter: @saullpink

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