Community Support Navigators Aim To Give City Heights Hope During Difficult Times
Case numbers for the COVID-19 pandemic are down this summer, but the devastation the pandemic wrought on immigrant communities in San Diego is still very much being felt.
Hamadi Jumale, the executive director of the Somali Bantu Community of San Diego, can hear it in the voices of the people who call him at all hours, looking for help in a desperate situation.
“I think in the community, a lot of the community doesn’t know their rights,” he said, explaining that some landlords and employers have been quick to take advantage of people during the pandemic.
Help is out there — thanks to a steady stream of federal and state funding to stave off evictions, help people make up lost income, and get utility bills paid. But connecting these communities to help, in languages they actually understand, has been a challenge after such a chaotic year.
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While Jumale takes these types of emergency calls as part of his regular job, he’s now joined by over 24 other crisis counselors, part of a project that began in March from the San Diego Refugee Communities Coalition, Cal Hope Counseling Project and the United Women of East Africa.
The project came together after a study found immigrants in San Diego were three times more likely to be unemployed than other San Diegans during the pandemic.
“We know that the pandemic was hard on everybody, things like increased anxiety around constant health monitoring, loss of jobs, the physical isolation from support systems in communities,” said Claire Enemark with the San Diego Refugee Communities Coalition. ”We know that this impacts the immigrant community greater than other communities.”
Enemark is helping to lead this program, which uses federal emergency money to train crisis counselors, who can speak with immigrant communities in their own languages. Right now, help is available in 18 languages. Immigrants can call a single number, then get put through to someone who speaks their language.
The counselors are pulled from 11 local community organizations, many based in City Heights, who have close ties to the local refugee and asylum-seeker communities.
“Our program is really unique. One of the main aspects that makes it unique is that it’s a peer-based workforce. We have 25 community support navigators who themselves are new immigrants, so they themselves have this lived experience of surviving this pandemic, as we all have, but they have this unique experience,” Enemark told KPBS.
Flyers advertising the program have been distributed at immigrant owned marketplaces throughout City Heights. And its number has been shared on WhatsApp message groups, all trying to reach the community where it is.
The hope is that the counseling program meets all the needs of people at the moment of crisis. It also acknowledges that a financial crisis can easily segue into one involving someone’s mental health.
“A client reached out to (a community support navigator), and said he needed some help in paying his utility bill. He wasn’t able to pay. She connected him with the SDG&E rate reduction program, helped him translate, and in that process, he opened up that his wife had died just a few months earlier,” Enemark explained. “And because there was a lot of mental health stigma in the immigrant community, had our staff not been providing that practical support up front, he might not have felt comfortable opening up.”
For Jumale with the Somali Bantu Community, who has been already doing this work for years, he’s happy to see that there’s a new generation of peer counselors getting trained, especially during a time when the need is so great.
What he wants to see most, though, are mental health professionals and social workers coming out of the community.
“With the next generation, we want to make sure we have our psychiatrists, we have counseling in our community,” he said. “They want a one-on-one, where they can understand each other. In the future, my expectation is that we see a generation of counselors and psychiatrists who speak their language in the community.”
The program is slated to run through the fall. Its leaders hope that further funding allows for the program to continue as long as the mental and financial impacts of the pandemic are still being felt.
Anyone looking for help can call (888) 222-0980.