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San Diego refugee, immigrant mental health program is role model in US

A free mental and behavioral health program is improving the lives of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in San Diego. KPBS Speak City Heights reporter Jacob Aere says the program has been effective and is now serving as a role model across the country.

Nyaduoth Gatkuoth is the daughter of refugees from South Sudan. She was looking for help and a support system in San Diego, and found it in a group called “Girl Talk.”

“Having Girl Talk, it's kind of just like — I don't necessarily go to a therapist, but that's kind of like my therapy in a sense,” Gatkuoth said.

The monthly support group is designed for South Sudanese women.

“These are women who I see myself in. So it's basically kind of like a mirrored experience when I am in that space,” she said. “I see people who are me and I’m able to empathize with what they're going through and sympathize as well.”

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Jacob Aere
A therapy room at License to Freedom has pink walls and a large couch with colorful cushions, July 7, 2022.

“Girl Talk” is organized by Southern Sudanese Community Center of San Diego. Sympathy and empathy are just part of what’s offered through the group, according to Gatkuoth.

“They talk about housing issues, they talk about food insecurity issues, and so on and so forth,” she said. “So, what I think this program has done: it’s expanded what mental health means.”

The Southern Sudanese Community Center is one of several agencies in the San Diego Refugee Coalition’s Behavioral Health Initiative. It’s the first peer-based, non-clinical mental health program to provide free, specialized services for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the region.

The program’s counselors speak 13 different languages and are all refugees or immigrants themselves.

“People feel comfortable to talk to somebody who can understand the culture, who speaks their languages,'' said License to Freedom CEO Dilkwhaz Ahmed. Her organization has taken the lead on providing mental health services to refugees in San Diego.

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Jacob Aere
A poster that discusses domestic violence hangs on the office wall of License to Freedom CEO Dilkwhaz Ahmed, July 7, 2022.

In the past year alone, the behavioral health initiative has helped over 2,000 people.

Even with the increase in those seeking help, stigmas around seeking mental health care are still very prevalent in the communities these groups serve.

Promised Land of the Karen Organization of San Diego explains, "For our parents and our old generation, they never really get to really think about their mental health when they were in refugee camps. They really think about survival and stuff. So it's a new thing — you move here to the United States and then it's a different battle, fighting mentally.”

Behavioral Health Specialist Nyamal Wal counsels refugees and facilitates the “Girl Talk” support group.

“I think they’re assimilating everyday, and even though a lot of refugees from South Sudan have been here since the early 90s, it's still like an everyday struggle for them,” she said.

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Jacob Aere
An open, purple pamphlet details the different services at License to Freedom, July 7, 2022.

The initiative offers one-on-one counseling, educational workshops and essential resource navigation.

“On a weekly basis, I can meet with anyone,” Wal said. “I can meet with older adults who don't really speak much English and I can meet with young women and just help counsel them, and talk about anything.”

Those intentional discussions surrounding mental health and resources with people from similar backgrounds are making a difference for young adults like Gatkuoth.

“I lost a sister earlier this year, and so just having that … safe space to be able to speak about what you're going through, and just having people with that shared experience, it means a lot and it's very important to me,” she said.

Wal said the "Girl Talk" model is starting to grow, and more Southern Sudanese women across the U.S. are coming together to talk about their mental health.

It happened almost by accident, as a result of turning to online group therapy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve been able to expand "Girl Talk" to other states outside of California. There’s mostly South Sudanese in the Midwest — so like Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota. So we’ve been able to reach out to more young women,” Wal said.

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Jacob Aere
A room at License to Freedom is set up for group therapy with floor cushions and Middle Eastern designs, July 7, 2022.

License to Freedom CEO Amhed said expanding the refugee coalition's impact is exactly what she wants to see for the Behavioral Health Initiative.

“Other organizations can come and take some of the lessons of what works and why this program is successful," she said, dropping a hint at what the secret for their growth has been: "It's because it came from the people themselves.”

For those worried about seeking help, Gatkuoth has a message.

“No matter how small your issue is, just reach out,” she said. “Tell somebody and there’s always somebody willing to give you an open ear, and with open hearts to be able to accept whatever you're saying, but also be able to help you with whatever you're going through.”

The Behavioral Health Initiative’s services are free, and people looking for help can learn more at sandiegorefugeecommunities.org.

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