Settling into a new home

New group home in the Lyndale neighborhood helps Somali immigrants cope with mental illnesses

LYNDALE – Fleeing Somalia for the United States in 1999, Mohamud, 46, finally has a place to call home. In his home country, he would have been institutionalized or on the streets due to his mental illness.

Mohamud is one of three Somali men and one Eritrean who live in a new Southwest group home devoted to their cultural and religious roots. Through an organization called Cultural Homes, Mohamud said he might be living on his own in 15 months.

“We stay [here] so we can stand on our feet,” he said.

Mohamud and the other men, as young as 23-years-old, moved into the home on Garfield Avenue in the Lyndale neighborhood last fall. Previously a tax-forfeited property, the house was renovated and turned into a place to help some of the newest Minnesotans become independent.

This is the third home rented by Cultural Homes for Somali men and may be one of the first organizations for these men in the country.

Karim Behi, Cultural Homes director, said these men come to their organization with a unique combination of mental health issues including schizophrenia and posttraumatic stress disorder, in addition to the typical struggle to adapt to a new country.

“They are starting from scratch,” he said. “They can’t communicate; you are deaf and blind when you can’t read signs or talk to people.”

Most of the men spent some time in mainstream group homes and became more stressed, Behi said. The men were more isolated when no one spoke their language, the food wasn’t familiar and they had no place to pray.

“If people are more stressed and more depressed in a traditional group home, they won’t get better,” he said. “Here, they have a better chance of getting back into society.”

Behi said one of the major obstacles the men face in conquering their illness is the cultural stigma of mental issues in the Somali community.

In Somalia, it is often assumed people have a mental illness due to their own mistakes in life. People suffering from the illnesses are locked in institutions or sent to live on the street because of isolation by family members, Behi said.

“When someone is mentally ill, it’s called waali, or mad and crazy,” Behi said. “People think if you lose your mind, you might get better, but you won’t get your mind back.”

To help the men gain confidence and adjust to a new culture, he said the homes offer traditional meals and places to pray. Tutors visit the homes for math and English lessons and religious healers stop by regularly. In addition, the men treat their house mates as family. The men go to mosque and listen to news from back home each night. They help each other find work and ways to attend school.

A neighborhood asset

The county created a positive addition to the community by converting a “trash house” into a group home, said Melanie Majors, executive director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Development Corporation. The property had been boarded up since the fall of 2004.

She said the neighborhood is fully supportive of the project and looking forward to working alongside the organization.

“Part of what we are trying to do is start relationships with cultural communities in the neighborhood,” Majors said. “We have a lot to learn.”

From a medical standpoint, Cultural Homes provides a stable home environment for men to heal, said David Schuchman, a mental health supervisor at Community University Health Care Center in Minneapolis.

“We know that the clients’ relationship with the helper is very important with healing,” he said. “If they experienced severe trauma, they need someone to talk to that understands and speaks a certain language.”

Schuchman said the men who were in mainstream group homes would shut down because of the language and cultural barriers.

The clinic works with most of the men in Cultural Homes to address the different issues they face. While mental health is a problem in the United States, many Somali refugees must cope with memories of the situation they came from. The country has been in political unrest and civil war since 1986.

“The whole Somali community has directly or indirectly experienced some trauma from civil war,” Schuchman said. Most of the clients saw or know people who witnessed others killed, raped or tortured, he said.

Although Cultural Homes is only accommodating 12 residents, the cost savings to the state and county makes a difference, said Markus Klimenko, principal planning analyst for Hennepin County Housing and Homeless Initiatives.

Despite the small number of men benefiting directly from the group homes, the organization is already seeing positive results. Since the first house opened in May 2005, three men have moved out on their own or back with family members.

Behi said the effects could spread across the Somali community.

“We want to do good work with the men we have now, but maybe people in the community will start to understand the issue, too,” Behi said.