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East African parents call for support, not scorn, in fight against teen addiction

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A woman talks to attendees of an event.
Fartune Del shares her experience of helping her son overcome drug addiction problems during an opioid listening session at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis on Monday.
Abdirahman Mukhtar | Tusmo Times via Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journala nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.

By Joey Peters

Fartune Del recalled the shame some in her community placed on her and other East African mothers as their teenage children struggled with drug addictions.

Men in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, she said, would sometimes criticize her for not kicking her teenage son out of the home.

“Because we love them, we get the blame,” Fartune told a crowded gym Monday during a forum on addiction in the East African community. “Because we let them in during the nighttime, we get the blame. Outside it is dangerous. You cannot let any child who is addicted stay outside, wondering what they’ll do next.”

Fartun’s family struggles, as well what she described as a recent rise in youth drug activity and violence among youth in her neighborhood, prompted her and 15 other mothers from the neighborhood to organize around the issue of drug addiction in East African youth in 2018.

Eventually, her son expressed a desire to turn his life around and entered treatment. “He’s standing with me right now trying to make a change,” she said, adding that she’s among the few in the East African community “who speaks the Somali language and openly admits that her son is doing drugs.”

The stigma of drug addiction in the local East African community is something she and several others at the forum pleaded must end before the problem itself can be solved.

“Mothers don’t say, ‘My child died of opioid addiction,’” said Farhiya Farah, program director for the Master of Public Health degree program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. “We cannot even fathom treatment if there is no recognition of a problem.”

The forum, moderated by state Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, came on the same day the Star Tribune reported the’ drug overdose rate in Minneapolis for 2019 surged to a 12-year high — 1,360 as of Nov. 19 — with more than a month to go before the year ends. Most of these overdoses were caused by opioids, according to the report.

“This is the moment we live in. This is the reality,” Mohamud told the crowd.

The forum also focused on the efforts of activists to combat the problem in the immigrant community. That includes Generation Hope, which is a group of five young people who overcame their addictions and also saw some friends die from drugs.

Five people talk about substance use in the East African community.
Members of Generation Hope, from left to right — Abdirahman Warsame, Khadar Abi, Biftu Jillo, Qalid Ibrahim and Farhan Aden — are breaking the silence over substance use in the East African community.
Abdirahman Mukhtar | Tusmo Times via Sahan Journal

Biftu Jillo, a member of Generation Hope who previously struggled with an addiction to painkillers, said the stigma in her community is compounded for women addicted to drugs.

“Even the girls who have gone through treatment don’t want it to be known,” she said. “I feel like they’re suffering in silence.”

These words prompted an emotional response from Farhiya, who explained how she didn’t realize addiction was so prevalent among young East African girls until recently.

“I want you to know I have let you down,” Farhiya, her voice breaking, told Biftu.

State and local policymakers participating in the forum at the Brian Coyle Center included Reps. Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, as well as state Sens. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, and Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis. Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson and Commissioner Angela Conley also attended.

Housing for young people struggling with substance abuse kicked out of their homes and culturally-specific addiction treatment came up often during the discussion as ways to tackle the problem.

Biftu spoke about having a therapist during her treatment who “couldn’t understand, but wanted to understand” how she initially felt shame for seeking help. But she also explained how she was referred to but afraid to attend local treatment centers that cater to the East African community because of the shame.

“I didn’t want to go because I didn’t want anyone in my community to know about me,” Biftu said.

Moran suggested adding culturally specific drug treatment in locations where the affected communities don’t live.

“We can at state level, with your help, decide what that means for the Somali community,” Moran said.

Others focused on continuing to build up the community organizations. Khadar Abi, another member of Generation Hope, said he never recalled seeing a former drug addict in his community step up to help current drug users.

“The solution to any of this is having the heart to care about somebody,” said Khadar, who used drugs for seven years. “For us, we cared about ourselves. We had to take care of our addiction and our sobriety. And now we couldn’t be selfish because everything that we worked so hard to get over, we couldn’t keep it to ourselves.”