Chicago area groups use counseling, support to address refugee mental health crisis


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Chicago area organizations, such as the Muslim Women Resource Center, are organizing counseling sessions and interpretation services to help the area’s recent influx of Afghan refugees and address mental health challenges.

Saul Pink, Reporter

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

But she said many of these refugees aren’t there for the legal services and resettlement help the office provides. They are just there to say hello. 

MWRC is one of many local organizations helping newly arrived Afghan refugees facing mental health challenges. Since last August, the center has helped more than 2,100 Afghan families, after the U.S. withdrew its troops from Afghanistan. Leaders of local groups said Afghan refugees’ stress often stems from years of war at home, guilt about escaping to Chicago with family stuck in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and difficulties adjusting to life in the U.S.

“I watched my community completely fall apart in August, and part of me also fell apart when I saw everything unfold in Afghanistan,” Quraishi, who is Afghan American, said. 

Heartland Health Centers, a community-based health service with 18 locations on Chicago’s north side and in the suburbs, started providing initial mental health screenings for 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 several layers of stress. Many initially experienced trauma from living through years of war and possibly losing family members, then struggled while fleeing Afghanistan in August. Refugees often spent months in refugee camps or U.S. military bases. Once in the U.S., refugees face stress from finding jobs, putting their kids in school and the culture shock that comes with moving to a new country.

Quraishi’s program at MWRC works with professional psychiatrists to help refugees combat these sources of distress through both individual and group counseling. 

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

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

As a Pakistani immigrant, Yazadani said she grappled with many of the same challenges as her patients when she first arrived in the U.S. 

“You believe you’re from two different societies and identify with both but belong to neither,” Yazdani said. “That experience in and of itself when I was growing up was difficult to reconcile.”

The language barrier also presents obstacles for refugees, Quraishi said. Though 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, who Quraishi refers to as “interpreters-slash-mentors.”

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

Quraishi now works with Autumn Cabell, an Assistant Professor of Counseling at DePaul University, to develop a digital library of mental health resources for refugees, translated to Pashto and Dari. The archive will include everything from videos about PTSD symptoms to information about the American school system.

Cabell also started running group therapy sessions in a partnership with MWRC in March. 

Cabell’s graduate students run sessions for up to 18 refugees. The students first teach “grounding strategies,” which are techniques designed to help the refugees cope with stress. Each session has a designated topic, such as dealing with loss or facing challenges specific to the U.S.

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

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

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

“There are some situations where I have not been able to sleep at night because you hear stories that just ring chills down your spine,” Quraishi said. “The best way that you can help is just by being there for them.”

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @saullpink

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