Farhia Budul, founder of Niyyah Recovery Initiative, stands for a portrait at the Minnesota state Capitol grounds Saturday. Hundreds gathered for the Walk for Recovery. Credit: Liam James Doyle | MPR News

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Farhia Budul gazed over the Minnesota State Capitol grounds as hundreds of people stopped at booths lining the street. For Budul, the September 17 Walk for Recovery was lined with hope.

“You see recovery everywhere here in the state of Minnesota,” Farhia said.

Substance use disorder recovery advocates like Budul are sounding the alarm about the opioid crisis.

“The opioid epidemic has come hard and hit hard the East African community,” Farhia said as she greeted passersby.

Attendees visit booths and mingle at the Minnesota State Capitol grounds on Saturday. Credit: Liam James Doyle | MPR News

As Farhia, a Somali American Muslim woman, began her own journey of recovery from substance use disorder, she saw a pressing need for culturally-specific services. She founded her nonprofit Niyyah Recovery Initiative last year.

Niyyah means “intention” in Arabic, Farhia explained. She aims to educate what she describes as  the backbone of the community, particularly mothers and elders, about opioids and substance use disorder in the Somali language.

“Moms are like, ‘My son or daughter died of a heart attack,’ when we know that 20-year-old playing basketball the other day had taken the wrong pill laced with fentanyl and overdosed and did not wake up,” she said.

Farhia said lack of education and stigma is attached to the idea of addiction in her culture, which is why she chooses to “recover out loud.”

Emma Matrious, right, contributes to a board at the Minnesota State Capitol grounds Saturday where people shared their stories of recovery . Credit: Liam James Doyle | MPR News

The problem is in every Minnesota community. The state reported record drug overdose deaths in 2021. The increasing prevalence of fentanyl is thought to be a contributing factor. While the Minnesota Department of Health said it does not keep data on overdoses in the East African communities currently, the state does keep track of the numbers by groups more broadly.

In the most recent numbers from 2019, African Americans were almost two times more likely to die of a drug overdose than whites. Native Americans were seven times more likely to die of drug overdose than whites. 

Pearl Evans, a prevention program administrator for the state health department, works on culturally-specific services for Black Minnesotans. Evans has seen an encouraging shift among the older generation during the pandemic.

“They are more open to having this conversation, to receive the information so they can be prepared to administer naloxone,” Evans said.

Naloxone, also called Narcan, rapidly reverses an opioid overdose, and can be administered in a nasal spray.

Like Farhia, Yussuf Shafie is one of the pioneers of culturally-specific services for the East African community. Yussuf, the chief executive officer and treatment director at the Alliance Wellness Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, said he has also seen significant changes in awareness and acceptance of substance use disorders, partly because of the desperation of the families touched by the opioid crisis.

Yussuf Shafie, treatment director with Alliance Wellness Center, participated in the recovery awareness event at the Minnesota State Capitol grounds in St. Paul. Credit: Liam James Doyle | MPR News

“2015 was more like alcohol, marijuana, cocaine,” Yussuf said. “2018, 2019, 2020, [it was] opioids and fentanyl.” 

He added that fentanyl seems to comprise almost all of the cases he’s seeing. Yussuf’s goal is to serve as a bridge between youth and their families in a rapidly changing landscape.

“It’s a different generation with social media and technology,” he said. “Drugs are easily accessible nowadays and it’s just really unfortunate.”

Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Superintendent Drew Evans said law enforcement is also working to curb an increase of importation of fentanyl across the southern United States border. Evans said fake oxycodone pills that can contain fentanyl have become among the most common seizures.

“In 2021, for example, we were seeing about an average of 100 cases involving fentanyl per month coming into our Bureau of Criminal Apprehension laboratories across the state,” Evans said. “This year we are on pace at 120 cases per month, so you see a significant increase we are looking at.”

Last year, Minnesota averaged more than three people dying every day from an overdose of any drug type and the state reported a larger percentage increase in overdose deaths in greater Minnesota than in the seven-county Twin Cities area.

September is National Recovery Month. Farhia said it will take everyone’s efforts year-round to fight the opioid crisis.

“Addiction does not discriminate, it does not have a color,” Farhia said.

She added that for future Recovery Walks, “I hope to see in the next few years more East African and more BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] communities coming out to the state Capitol.”

Attendees socialize and visit various booths at the Minnesota State Capitol Grounds on Saturday. Credit: Liam James Doyle | MPR News

Nina Moini is a reporter for MPR News.