Credit: Ibrahim Hirsi | Sahan Journal

Addiction is a disease that knows no boundaries. It can affect anyone regardless of their religious affiliation, family background, or socioeconomic status. 

That’s the message Yussuf Shafie, who runs the Alliance Wellness Center in Bloomington, has been trying to spread in the East African community. Yussuf has encountered many who downplay or deny the addiction problem that has exerted a tight grip on young East Africans, especially Somalis. The deniers, he said, argue that substance abuse should never be an issue for Muslims, since Islam prohibits the use of alcohol and drugs. 

But that religious rule doesn’t mean people aren’t trying them. In Minnesota, the abuse of powerful painkillers—such as oxycodone, morphine, methadone, and fentanyl—is cutting life short for many young Somali men and women. So much so that state health officials have enlisted the help of leaders to combat what they call “the opioid epidemic.”

Alcohol and drug abuse in the Somali community hasn’t been adequately studied, but the handful of available reports paint a grim picture. For instance, one report on substance abuse among Minnesota middle and high schoolers found in 2017, that Somali students were more likely than the state average to misuse prescription pain medications, and use marijuana and other illicit drugs.

Over the last six years, Yussuf has been on the front line of initiatives seeking to raise awareness about chemical dependency in the community, destigmatize addiction, or encourage those abusing alcohol and drugs to get professional help. 

Yussuf was a teenager growing up in Burnsville when he first decided he wanted to pursue a career that would put him in direct contact with people in his Somali community. After graduating from high school in 2006, Yussuf earned an associate degree in human services and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work.  

In 2015, Yussuf founded the Alliance Wellness Center to provide alcohol and drug treatment to the East African community. When he’s not working with clients at Alliance Wellness, Yussuf is often at community centers, mosques, and events—speaking about addiction problems.           

His effort to raise awareness about chemical dependency has helped shift the conversation as more young Somali Americans speak publicly about their plight. But just when the community began to see a growing awareness of addiction, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, unleashing devastating effects on those already struggling with substance abuse.

As part of our “Stories from the Pandemic” series, produced in partnership with Minnesota Transform and the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, Sahan Journal spoke with Yussuf Shafie about addiction problems in the community, how the pandemic has impacted people with addiction, and what his center has done to help addicts and their families. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Before we start talking about the pandemic’s impact on those struggling with substance use, I wanted to ask about how you became interested in this work. When did you realize you wanted to become a mental health practitioner and substance abuse counselor?

I’ve always wanted to do this work. I think I was about 12 or13 years old when I thought of doing something that would allow me to help others. I wanted to help others, specifically the East African community. I’ve always been passionate about mental health. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that there were also addiction problems in our community. 

After high school, I went to Inver Hills Community College, where I earned an associate degree in human services. Then I went on to Metropolitan State University for a bachelor’s in social work, and the University of Minnesota for a master’s degree in social work. 

As a graduate student, I worked at the Community-University Health Care Center in south Minneapolis. My work here exposed me to the community’s dire need for mental health services. That was when I said, ‘You know what? I need to open a center for my people.’ I took a risk right after graduate school. So I opened the Alliance Wellness Center. 

What did you see, exactly, that prompted your decision to open the Alliance Center?

I had seen a lot of other places that serve people with addiction and mental health issues. A lot of times, these clients faced cultural and language barriers. So I wanted to create a space that they feel they belong to, a place where the staff speak their language and know their culture. People feel at ease when they’re served by people they can relate to.

That’s not to say that other places aren’t trying. There are a lot of programs that are doing great work. But I just felt in my heart I needed to do something specifically for my people—because there was none at the time. 

The Alliance Center has been around for about six years now. It’s obviously open to anybody, but what’s the ethnic make-up of the population you serve?

The majority of the people we serve are Somalis. But we also have Ethiopians, Oromo, and Kenyans who turn to us for service.

The Somali community isn’t open to discussing addiction as a real problem. But it seems like many people are struggling with substance abuse and are actually seeking you out for assistance. 

We definitely have addiction problems in our community. A lot of people are just in denial. Every community is struggling with addiction. The African American community is struggling with addiction. The Native American community is struggling with addiction. The Asian American community is struggling with addiction. We all are struggling. 

The thing that’s different about us is that we don’t want to accept it because of our religion. Technically, as Muslims, we’re not supposed to use alcohol and drugs. Yet, we have people who are struggling with alcohol and drugs.  

I always tell people that addiction is not a life sentence. Recovery is possible. 

We have black-and-white thinking. Like, if you’re a good Muslim, you don’t use drugs and alcohol. If you do use this stuff, then you have faith problems—not addiction problems. Likewise, the community, with the exception of a small number of people, doesn’t think of mental health as a serious health issue. One is either crazy or healthy. There’s nothing in between. So addiction and mental health are stigmatized. As a result, people are not seeking help. They’re afraid that someone might see them or find out about their struggles.  

And a lot of people don’t get services because of the stigma and the shame. Even if someone dies of an overdose, their families often hide the real cause of death. Instead, they tell people that their loved one died of a heart attack.  

What is the age range of the individuals coming to your center for treatment? And what are they coming for—what are their addiction problems? Alcohol addiction? Drug addiction? Or both?

Five years ago, most of our clients were in their 40s and 50s. These weren’t folks struggling with opioid addiction. They had problems with alcohol.

But over the last two years, the demographic of the individuals seeking treatment at the centers has shifted. Now the majority of our clients are between 17 and 25 years old. And all of them are addicted to opioids. So the fentanyl and opioid pandemic is hitting the Somali community really hard. We have lost a lot of young people to overdose, unfortunately.

The Somali community is obviously diverse. Some families are secular, some are religious. Some are educated, some are not. Some are low-income families, some come from a more affluent background. There have been some talks in the community that the folks struggling with addiction are often those from one-parent, low-income households. What have you been hearing?        

These are kids that went through Islamic schools and grew up going to the mosque on a regular basis. Some of them are from well-to-do families. They live in big houses in Lakeville, Edina, Bloomington, Apple Valley, and Eagan. 

So when we talk about addiction in the community, we aren’t just talking about poor kids who were raised in single-mother households in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. 

Why are they turning to drugs? 

Peer pressure is a big problem for a lot of our youth. They want to fit in; they want to be cool. They want their friends to respect them and love them. 

Mental health is also a big thing. People are struggling with mental health; so they need alcohol or drugs to cope with their mental health. For example, I’m depressed. Or I have anxiety. Or I have PTSD. I start smoking weed to cope. After a while, I get introduced to another drug, maybe opioids. After that, fentanyl. So that’s how it starts. 

The opposite of addiction is connection. So people need to be connected with family, with loved ones. They need their needs to be met. They need to have stable housing; they need to have employment. Our youth need to have a structured lifestyle. They need to go to school and work.   

I’ll come back to the question about what the center is doing to help people. But I want to throw in a question about the pandemic. I’m assuming COVID-19 has worsened the situation for the people struggling with addiction. Tell me how the pandemic affected the center and your clients. 

We’ve had a really tough year. COVID has been challenging. When we first went into lockdown, many of our 24 staffers were afraid to come to work. It was hard for a lot of people to risk their health for obvious reasons. 

For our clients, the pandemic was really tough, especially during the lockdown. Many lost their jobs. Some lost their housing. Some lost family members to the virus. They couldn’t see friends. They couldn’t go to the gym. 

A lot of people were depressed. They used drugs at higher rates during COVID. So there’s a combination of a lot of setbacks that the pandemic has caused.  

If someone is struggling with addiction and wants to seek help at the Alliance Center, what’s the process they have to go through to get the treatment they need? 

We first do a screening to see if the client is a good fit for our treatment program. Then we assess the client’s situation. We ask them about how long they’ve used drugs, the kind of drugs they use, if they have family support, where they live, etc. 

Based on this assessment, we create a treatment plan for them. We help them with three things: First, we make sure we give them one-on-one counseling. We get to know them on a personal level. We talk about family, jobs, school, relationships, etc. We also ask them about their reason for using drugs.  

Second, we do group therapy. Everybody shares their stories during group therapy sessions. We talk about what worked for them in their treatment process and what didn’t work, and why they use drugs. Most of the time, the reason they use drugs is that they don’t feel good about themselves. So we teach them how to be confident. We have other group members who finished the program come as guest speakers and share their stories. 

Third, we put together an aftercare plan for them. This is helping them think about what they want to do after the program. So we help them with their resumes and with job and housing applications.  

We try to stay in touch with them and celebrate their milestones. The other day, we did a little surprise party for one of the guys who has been sober for one year. The center brought together 20 other guys who completed the program to celebrate him. This is a way for us to make recovery fun.  

How long do they usually stay at the center?

Ninety days is the minimum. There are people who stay with us for months. But usually, 90 days is the average. A lot of them do well in 90 days. 

What happens to them when they leave the center? 

There are so many people who have recovered. They’re going to school. They’re getting married. Some of them have invited me to their wedding celebrations. Many have jobs now. Some even work with us at the center. They’re working with people they used to do drugs with and helping them to get sober. 

I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it. It’s amazing to see them do great in life. 

Ibrahim Hirsi is a reporter at Sahan Journal, where he covers immigrant communities and the politics and policies that affect them. He was previously a staff writer for MinnPost and MPR News. Ibrahim got...