As Farhia Budul enters the Brian Coyle Community Center next to Currie Park in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, the elderly Somali man at the front desk smiles, saying she’s been missed. On the way to a meeting room, she’s stopped by five different people, who all embrace her with the same energy.
Budul works as an addiction counselor and community organizer; work she was drawn to through her own experience. As a young mother of two, she became addicted to alcohol. When she began her own journey of recovery from substance abuse disorder in 2009, she saw a need for culturally specific services and that is how her non-profit, Niyyah Recovery Initiative was born in 2021. The organization provides peer recovery service support, raises awareness and education about substance use disorders and mental health in the East African community in Minnesota and is the first of its kind in the country. On the day it was announced she had won a Bush Foundation Fellowship, which comes with a grant prize of $100,000, she sat down with MinnPost to talk about why she began telling her story, the rise of opioid-overdose related deaths among Somali youth in Minnesota and why she believes recovery is inextricable from connection within culture and community. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MinnPost: So you came into this work, the work of addiction and recovery, by way of personal experience. When you began to talk about your story publicly, what was your intention? Was it more for yourself or to help others you think?
Farhia Budul: I’m glad you asked that question because Niyyah means intention in Arabic, like intentional recovery. My aim was to inspire others and share my own story and to let people know that I’ve been through substance abuse disorders and that I am a person that struggled with the disease of addiction. I wanted the Somali and East African community to see that there was somebody that looks like them that has been through it and that is actually talking about it. I wanted to reduce the stigma and shame that often comes with this sort of thing.
MinnPost: Were you ever hesitant in being so public with your story because of the stigma?
Farhia Budul: Yeah, it took me a while. At first, I was embarrassed and that is really where a lot of people are today. My mom even advised me against telling my story but I prayed on it, just asking Allah, “Like is this something I should do?” I started talking about my story publicly three years ago. What happened was I was sober for six years and then I had a relapse because I wasn’t taking care of myself. You have to work on yourself in recovery and it’s a lot of work. So this time around I started to really put the work into it and I took it a step farther by really embracing my faith. That’s something I didn’t have before … I was saying I was a Muslim but I wasn’t really practicing it. When I started to really practice Islam, everything just sort of fell into place. I felt really empowered to share my story and Niyyah was born from that empowerment.
MP: During the pandemic, cases of opioid-related overdose deaths spiked across all communities, but it was especially acute in the Somali community and there were many young people dying on a daily basis. Can you talk a little about that and what it was like working with families who lost loved ones at that time?
FB: Yes, we had a pandemic and then we had an opioid epidemic on top of that. Even people who were in recovery were also relapsing at higher rates. The data from 2019 to 2020 showed a 27% increase in overdose-related deaths and a lot of young Somali men and women were overdosing. We were having Janāzah (Muslim burials) every weekend and I remember, we had like 10 overdose deaths in one day and they were all Somali kids. I was working with families and going into these homes; we were also doing a lot of interventions. These were with young men and women who were struggling and their parents didn’t really know what to do so I was getting calls and we would have these interventions and tried to get the person into treatment. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. It was a really hard time and the important thing for me was giving the hooyoo (mom) some hope. Sometimes, these kids were being enabled by their loved ones instead of getting help because moms don’t know the difference.
MP: I was thinking about how hard this work can be for people like you who are in this field. Is it taxing and do you ever feel like it’s too much in terms of taking care of yourself and your own recovery? Do you ever feel like this is a lot?
FB: Of course, it is a lot. It’s emotionally draining but the thing that is helping me today is that I’m passionate about it more than ever. And then I have days like today where I don’t have to do so much in terms of being with families and people who need help. You have to have boundaries and it’s just about having a balance. I do a lot of work and social media has been a really great tool in helping me raise awareness and educating people on addiction and recovery. We also have a lot of in-person events that we host. When I first started Niyyah, there was a lot to learn and we’re still a small nonprofit. We have a lot of capacity but we are still missing a lot of the key parts of the infrastructure that’s required to run an organization. We need board leadership and that’s really what I want to focus on with my Bush fellowship, navigating my way through building a leadership team and connecting with mentors and getting to learn things that I didn’t have the time and resources to learn.
MP: When you think about your addiction, do you ever think about the root causes of why it happened? Did it stem from other areas in your life not going well or possibly past traumas that you felt like were unresolved?
FB: Absolutely. We have to know where it stems from, like what is the root cause. I know a lot more about myself today than I ever knew about myself before. A lot of the reasons why I made the choices I made was to numb the feelings I had. I immigrated to the states when I was really young and my mom didn’t really understand the culture and she was strict. I wanted to be a kid and just play sports but my mom didn’t want to let us do any of those things … she literally just wanted us to be in the house. That was her way of protecting us from this world and I understand that today, but what I did was that I rebelled against that. I got married super young, the summer after 8th grade. I had my daughter at 15 and being a teen mom and not being supported, I felt neglected and abandoned because my daughter’s father just up and left. Being a young single mom, I felt really disappointed in myself because things didn’t work out for me the way I’d hoped they would. So it really stemmed from a lot of that … neglect, abandonment, anxiety, depression. And I didn’t have anyone to talk to about all of it by the way. I had my first drink when I was 23 and what they say is true, the first sip is so potent because you’re always chasing that feeling. And I remember that drink, I was in a long line to get into a club and it was freezing outside. My friend that I was with was drinking out of a Coca-Cola bottle and I didn’t know what was in it and she goes “drink this, it’s going to warm you up.” I immediately spit it out, disgusted and surprised by the awful taste. But then I was like well let me try it again and I kept sipping on it and by the time we made it onto the front of the line, I was already lit. I think that was like the best night I had in terms of fun … we were just dancing and drinking and carefree. The next day I felt so hungover and sick and then the guilt and the shame followed. But a month later, I drank again and to be honest, I was more addicted to the lifestyle of partying more so than the alcohol at first.
MP: You’ve spoken about reaching out to mosques and community faith leaders to encourage incorporation of counseling for addiction and recovery into spiritual practices. But you weren’t successful there because the leaders didn’t think it was an issue or their place. Why do you think that is?
FB: I really want to be careful on how I answer this question. Our mosques and our faith leaders; they have power, you know. That is where, when a mom is struggling, she will go to the mosque first. For example, there is a high divorce rate in our communities right now and if the masjids had couples counseling or something equivalent to that, that would be amazing. Everything doesn’t have to be shameful and I’ve noticed a lot of young men and women are not welcome in these religious spaces after they’ve struggled with drug abuse or addiction to substances. We need our faith leaders and masjids to support recovery initiatives across our state and come together and be allies to us.
MP: Niyyah is the first community-based recovery service that’s focused on East Africans but you also provide services to all people regardless of their ethnicity or religious affiliation. The focus on East Africans is really unique though and you’ve been quoted as saying “recovery is inextricable from connection with culture and community.” Can you talk a little bit about that idea and why you’ve found this to be true?
FB: Yeah, you can’t separate the two things. For example, Minnesota really invests in treatment centers. We want to treat the disease of addiction. There are so many treatment centers … in fact this place is called the land of 10,000 treatment centers. But we also need to understand that a lot of people initiate recovery at these centers, but they don’t recover there. You have to get out of the treatment center after a certain period of time and everyone at your treatment center is going to congratulate you and say nice things like “great job” and “you did it” and now you’re back in your community. That is where recovery starts, the minute you walk out that door. So what’s happening is, our community members, Somalis and East Africans and Muslims and essentially all communities to be honest, people are getting out of treatment with all these tools and now they’re back in their communities facing the same realities. And what happens is they relapse and they get back to the same treatment center and it’s a cycle … it’s a vicious cycle. So what recovery community organizations do is, we want to be able to help bridge the gap from treatment to recovery because that’s where people sustain their recovery, at the community level. A person in treatment also needs family support and we want to make sure that families are included in treatment plans so later when they leave, they can feel like they have a support system. And that’s something that is not happening today. So that’s what I want to do. I want to amplify and share my own story so that I can help bridge those gaps. I want to connect with more treatment centers to let them know that Niyyah is here to help support any of their clients that need culturally responsive recovery care. And I think we have been doing it but now with the Bush Fellowship, it gives me a greater platform to do it.
MP: In terms of spirituality, when you were in the depths of your addiction, you said you were spiritually bankrupt. How has religion helped you in your recovery? What things did you do spiritually that has helped you stay sober and gave you the courage to even talk openly about recovery?
FB: I love this question. Allah saved me for real. I’m very serious when I say that. He took me out of the darkness and I just felt like I was awakened. I didn’t walk to him, I literally started running back to him. I started praying regularly and my mom was praying regularly for me. I went to the hospital because I was just so scared and I couldn’t sleep for days due to the anxiety and depression. They gave me some medication to help me sleep and I’m really grateful. And people need to understand that medication is part of the treatment for recovery and it’s a lifeline. There’s a stigma attached to medication and I think we need to work to end it. So for me, when I started taking my medication and combined it with my five daily prayers, everything changed. My faith transformed my life, literally. Today, because I’m practicing and I have so much faith in Allah, I feel like he is paving the way for me. This is just the beginning, I can feel it.
MP: You have two kids who are now young adults, but you had them fairly young. In a way they grew up with you and I read that you said they were a huge part of your recovery. In what ways did they help it?
FB: My kids, they are resilient. They look at me and they tell me they’re proud of me and how far I’ve come and I’m proud of them. I feel like Allah saved my kids in a way when I was going through so much. They never got into drugs or stuff like that because I think seeing me struggle scared them and they just didn’t get into that world. They were scared straight basically (laughs). But they were my champions and now we’re best friends. My kids are my heroes.
MP: So recovery is a long road and it’s hard and there are relapses and many bumps on the road to it. What would you tell your younger self when you first began your recovery journey?
FB: I would tell her to never lose faith. There was a time in my life that I was basically hopeless and I just didn’t care at all. You know sometimes you can just be in a place where you don’t care about yourself or anything … and that’s a really dangerous place to be. And for anyone out there right now who’s struggling or is maybe thinking of getting help but feels like it’s too late; I would tell them that it’s not too late and that it never is. A lot of people who are in the depths of addiction feel isolated and alone and I just want to say you are not alone. We all are going through something and I promise you someone else out there is going through the same thing you are.