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In Minneapolis, a Somali-owned mental health clinic seeks to heal its community

Healing Path Wellness Services in South Minneapolis burned down during protests. But the Somali community the mental health clinic serves needs it more than ever.

The Healing Path Wellness Services mental health clinic was broken into, vandalized and destroyed by fire on May 28, 2020, in South Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Sulekha Ibrahim

(RNS) — In late May, Sulekha Ibrahim opened the doors of Healing Path Wellness Services, the mental health clinic she runs in South Minneapolis. 

The clinic had been closed for weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. She and her staff were eager to get back to work, meeting clients in person.

Two days later, the clinic burned down.

“People broke in, vandalized the space, destroyed it and set it ablaze,” said Ibrahim, a 28-year-old public health nurse who founded the clinic. “It’s obviously devastating for us and our clients. We were all so excited to finally see our clients again after COVID-19, and then the fire happened.”

Opened in 2018, Healing Path focuses on offering culturally sensitive wellness services to marginalized populations. Most of its clients are older Somali immigrant and refugee women living in South Minneapolis. Many experience PTSD, depression and anxiety as a result of devastating trauma during decades of civil war in the East African country as well as the challenges of displacement and resettlement that “fragment” their lives, Ibrahim said.

The pandemic and protests sparked by the death of George Floyd — who died at the hands of police about 2 miles from the Healing Path Clinic — mean that the city’s black and immigrant residents are in critical need of mental health support, the clinic’s staff say. 

“I’m heartbroken because what we have is a very unique kind of practice,” said Kimberly Dillon, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor who is one of 12 professionals at the clinic. “It brought me to tears, because we worked hard to create a comfortable, safe space for our clients.”

The photos depicting Somali culture that Dillon had hung on her office wall are gone, as are her clients’ knitting projects that she had proudly displayed. The walls and furniture are charred. Computers and files have been destroyed. Not a single room was spared fire and water damage. 

The clinic was one of hundreds of businesses damaged during the unrest that broke out in late May in the neighborhood, the fiery epicenter of the now-global movement for justice in the police killing of Floyd. An early tally reported well over $55 million in estimated damage to the city.

“They left their homeland to come to a safer place, and it’s now like going back to that time,” Dillon said. “It’s retraumatized them. That’s a tragedy in of itself.” 

A protester carries a U.S. flag upside down, a sign of distress, next to a burning building May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody on Memorial Day, have broken out across the country. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Regardless of the damage, the clinic’s staff members say they support the protests. Many of their clients do, too.

“What happened to our building was unfortunate, but we can repair and rebuild,” Ibrahim said. “But what happened to George Floyd — his life can’t be restored. We still really believe in the movement.”

Somalis, who are almost all Muslim, have been at the forefront of the uprising, with many drawing comparisons to the police violence and abuses of power their families left behind. Minnesota is home to America’s largest Somali diaspora, a largely immigrant and refugee population displaced by violent civil war and political instability over the past three decades.

Like African Americans, Somalis have experienced police brutality and discrimination in the criminal justice system. Within broader Muslim communities, they face anti-blackness. And being the country’s most visible black and Muslim ethnic group also means that they have found themselves uniquely targeted by hate, violence, harassment and surveillance

Now, seeing buildings on fire and protesters tear-gassed has brought back memories and fears of war for some Somalis.

“Many people in our community are extremely frightened, even though they want justice,” Ibrahim said. “It’s a lot for their psyche, and it’s triggering trauma and social anxiety for some people. But a lot of black youth are also starting to feel empowered. Now there’s a space for us to speak about what we’ve been through, and our voices are being heard.”

Sulekha Ibrahim. Courtesy photo

Rather than laying blame on protesters, Ibrahim says her main focus is on helping her community heal. The clinic has crowdfunded over $75,000 to rebuild. It’s also maintaining its coronavirus grocery pick-up services since the arson, and plans to continue teletherapy services as it did while the city was locked down. 

Many Muslim mental health professionals and physicians have turned to videoconferencing platforms to offer one-on-one teletherapy and telemedicine services. The Khalil Center, a faith-based psychological and spiritual wellness center, is now seeing as many clients online as it did in person before quarantine.

The Center for Victims of Torture, which offers mental health care and other community services to Minnesota Somalis who have faced trauma, uses videoconferencing to connect with clients, as does Boston’s Somali-owned Community Caring Clinic.

Using videoconferencing tools was the first instinct for Healing Path’s staff, too.

But the staff quickly realized it would not be so simple: Many of the clinic’s clients are elderly and low-income, and they do not have access to a computer or smartphone or are unfamiliar with such technology. Because many clients do not speak English fluently, most of the clinic’s staff had to work through interpreters.

“In my brain, I was like, ‘This is OK, let’s do telehealth, let’s do Zoom,’” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. When it came down to it, we had to get a translator on the phone for a three-way call.”

That’s stunted the effectiveness of the therapy, she said. Since the clinic launched, Ibrahim and her staff have prided themselves on creating a welcoming, community environment, where locals could wander in and receive social services. Losing face-to-face meetings has made it harder to build trust with members of immigrant communities where mental health is deeply stigmatized.

“Coming to the clinic was a social experience, not just meeting their therapist,” Ibrahim said. “It’s getting answers to questions and getting to meet with people.”

When the clinic closed due to lockdowns, some clients lost their sole source of social interaction.

Many of the clinic’s clients live alone. Many have been in quarantine due to health risks and have faced difficulty getting groceries, medications and household items. And many struggled to understand what the coronavirus is and its symptoms, leading them to live in fear.

The Healing Path Wellness Services mental health clinic was broken into, vandalized and destroyed by fire on May 28, 2020, in South Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Sulekha Ibrahim

The coronavirus has taken a disproportionate, deadly toll on black communities, with Muslim immigrant communities, elderly populations and low-income families also seeing higher risks. In Minnesota alone, two leading black Muslim elected officials — U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and state Attorney General Keith Ellison — have each lost a parent to the virus.

“Unfortunately, most people seem to think that the majority of the stress that people are under just came into existence due to COVID and the national uprisings,” said Kameelah Rashad, founder of the Muslim Wellness Foundation. “What we have to remember is that so many in black Muslim communities were already experiencing a level of vulnerability and risk that was disproportionately high.”

The clinic is one of dozens of faith-based organizations, in the Twin Cities and across the country, working to relieve the mental health crises and deliver “community care” to vulnerable black, Muslim and elderly populations amid a pandemic and extraordinary, widespread civil unrest against police brutality.

Once the outbreak subsides, Rashad said, the underlying racial disparities issues crippling black communities’ wellbeing will still be there — and they will be magnified.

“This calls for an expansion of services and support for black mental health and wellness in radically different ways than we’ve seen before,” Rashad said. “At the same rate that we’re disproportionately affected by police brutality and violence and exposure to a pandemic, our response to that has to be equally expansive and urgent.”

Funding black mental health professionals should be a major part of that response, Rashad and Ibrahim agreed.

Slowly, Ibrahim said, clinics like hers have begun chipping away at the persistent stigma surrounding mental health care in black and immigrant communities by expanding their definition of mental well-being, she said. Many therapists are only beginning to understand that spirituality can play a critical role in wellness, as can culture, race, family life and other socioeconomic factors.

“More than ever, we want to be here as a safe space for our community to have these dialogues,” she said. “We don’t want to leave our clients or South Minneapolis.”

This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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