UNC students help ease transition, stress for refugees
Last September, Albert Thrower didn’t know what to expect when he knocked on the door of an apartment shared by several Somali refugees.
Suspicion? Reluctance? Anger?
It seemed possible to Thrower and his two colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that the men might take offense at the idea of accepting help. Perhaps they would view it as weakness.
Instead, Thrower recalled, “they greeted us smiling hugely, with beaming faces.”
Thrower, Allison Hill and Erin Magee worked through the winter and spring with refugees in Durham and Orange counties as part of a pilot program initiated by UNC Professor Josh Hinson.
The Refugee Mental Health & Wellness Initiative got about $10,000 in seed money from the Armfield-Reeves Innovation Fund to fill gaps in services offered by the North Carolina Refugee Assistance Program.
The state program tries to put refugees on self-sufficient footing as quickly as possible, with employment services, medical screening and English language training. It falls short, however, when it comes to meeting mental-health needs.
The UNC project sought to provide mental-health screenings, psychotherapy, group treatment and psychiatric case management in coordination with the university’s Refugee Health Initiative, the Durham office of Church World Service and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
In 2012, refugees from 85 countries sought safe haven in the United States. Last year, 2,200 resettled in North Carolina. Of those, about 250 make their homes in the Triangle counties of Durham, Orange and Wake.
Countries that yield the most refugees include Bhutan, Burma, Iraq and Somalia. Some suffered torture or other forms of trauma before escaping to the United States.
“Now they’re in a strange place,” Thrower said. “He doesn’t speak the language. He can’t get a job. He can’t provide for his family. He’s losing what defined himself as a father, a husband and a man. It’s a very scary place to be.”
That leads to new stress and potential emotional trauma, so the UNC team would connect the refugee with a therapist for individual treatment.
Kelly Cohen-Mazurowski, community resource manager for Church World Service in Durham, praised the UNC program.
“I think the clients who have worked with them have been exposed and helped by talk therapy,” she said. “It really opened up a new world to them. Clients never would’ve done something like this in their home countries. In America, they can try new things.”
Refugees who worked with the program got jobs and seem well-adjusted, she said. They’re more aware of the resources available.
It’s been successful, Cohen-Mazurowski said, because the students didn’t just pose the idea by asking if the refugee wanted to see a counselor. Instead, they couched it in more physical terms.
“Have you been feeling tired a lot? Have you been able to sleep?” And if their answers indicated that counseling might help, the students would suggest talking with someone about it.
Hinson wants to continue the mental-health program this fall, but will need bridge funds to make that happen. He’s also partnering with state officials to apply for a federal grant that would bring a torture-survivor treatment center to North Carolina, which is 10th in the nation for refugee resettlement but isn’t served by any of the 33 existing torture-survivor treatment centers.
Thrower, who’s now moving to St. Louis with his girlfriend after completing his work at UNC, is proud to have been part of building Hinson’s project.
“Getting involved with the refugee community, listening to them and addressing all the needs these folks have, doing it from within, has been amazing,” Thrower said.
FIND OUT MORE
For more about the Armfield-Reeves Innovation Fund or to discuss private giving at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work, contact Mary Beth Hernandez, associate dean for advancement, at 919-962-6469 or Marybeth@email.unc.edu.
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