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East Africans with addictions need culturally appropriate referrals and treatment

Abah Mohamed

It is a gift to call Minnesota home. As an East African woman, I am proud of the great strides that my community has made in this state. We left our homes to start over in a new and unfamiliar country. Today, many in my community are thriving despite the trauma we have experienced in our war-torn homeland. However, some members of my community struggle. Alcohol and chemical use feels for them like a solution to their problems.

In my professional career, I’ve seen many of my community members succeed in America. However, some community members with chemical-dependency problems face overwhelming challenges with nowhere to turn for help. These individuals face estrangement from family, exclusion from religion (alcohol and drug use are not permitted in the Islamic religion), ostracism from the community, and ultimately many are stuck in the criminal justice system. Some have attempted mainstream treatment programs with no success, while others lack knowledge of what “treatment” really is. It is not uncommon for an East African to be sent to a specific treatment program in the Twin Cities because that program has an African-American individual on staff. To state the obvious, East Africans have very different cultural experiences. Because of the inconsistent support, many East Africans continue to be plagued by addiction.

After seeing so many continue to struggle, it finally hit me. If I won’t help these individuals, who will? With this realization, I founded South East Homes. It is the first East African specialized mental health and chemical dependency treatment program in North America. Since we opened our doors seven years ago, we have helped hundreds of individuals by providing resources and a supportive cultural community for their recovery journey.

Cultural competence is key

The research is clear. Culturally competent programs, like the established Native American treatment programs, produce tremendous results. By employing culturally competent treatment strategies, South East Homes fosters a community of support that understands the unique challenges that East Africans face in battling addiction. As pioneers in this work, we have developed innovative programming and continue to grow to meet the needs of the community.

While we are proud of our successes, we still face obstacles in this work. One challenge is that many East Africans struggling with addiction or co-occurring diseases do not receive appropriate referrals and fair assessments, in large part due to cultural and language barriers. This leads to frequent misdiagnoses and inappropriate levels of care. Many individuals also have complex mental health needs that can further complicate diagnosis and treatment. Despite the progress South East Homes has made in addressing this challenge, so many East Africans continue to receive misdiagnoses.

Must fulfill basic needs for recovery

A lack of cultural competency can severely jeopardize an individual’s recovery. An older man was charged with breaking the law and was sent to jail. While in jail, his wife of over 20 years filed for divorce. He later was released to a program that was not culturally informed, where he was on a work release. During Ramadan, when Muslims cannot eat from sunrise to sunset, he completed his full-time work schedule with a long commute. When he came home, the halfway house had not saved any food for him to eat. He then reached out to South East Homes and we were able to provide him with supportive services. When an individual cannot fulfill his basic needs, like having food to eat, he cannot focus on his recovery.

My goal is to bring awareness to the challenges East Africans face with chemical dependency and co-occurring problems, as well as the real results that we can achieve through culturally appropriate services. I know that other minority communities in Minnesota face similar challenges as the East African community. My hope is that all struggling Minnesotans, no matter what their cultural or ethnic background, will be able to access treatment services that provide real resources for recovery. 

Abah Mohamed is the founder and managing director of South East Homes, the first East African specialized chemical health treatment program in North America. 

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