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New Refugees Overcome Stress, Uncertainty and other Obstacles

Ann-Elise Henzl

By September, Wisconsin will have 990 new residents who’ve come here as refugees. They’re among 70,000 the nation is welcoming this federal fiscal year.

Refugees have been settling in Wisconsin for more than a century, so systems are in place to meet their needs, such as housing and food. Some need mental health help, as well.

Refugees endure stress. By definition, they’re people fleeing persecution; they’ve been harmed or intimidated because of factors such as their race or religion. Many come from war-torn areas, so they’ve witnessed violence. And while seeking new homes, refugees often crowd into camps, by the thousands.

Twenty-four-year-old Edumakono Zetho headed for a camp in Tanzania, after fleeing his native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Life in refugee camp is not easy. We are in Tanzania more than 92,000 people. Everyone is struck (with) mental problem, because of what happened in our countries."

Zetho says he longed for a fresh start in the U.S., but applying for refugee status brought a new kind of stress. It can be overwhelming to leave one’s people and culture. Plus, he was headed toward an uncertain future.

“When you start the process, you don’t know where you’re going.”

Zetho ended up alone, in Milwaukee. He knew nothing about the city, and spoke only French and Swahili. However, in the nine months that he’s been here, he’s been learning English. So have several family members, who have since followed him to Milwaukee.

“It’s come very difficult to adapt for American English, essentially pronunciation. It’s come very hard to us, but we learn as much we can, to make sure that we understand American speak.”

The resettlement agency Catholic Charities enrolled Zetho in English classes and cultural orientation sessions. It also found him an apartment, and a job at a foundry. He says he plans to go to school eventually, to become a social worker.

“Right now, I feel Milwaukee is my home, and I try all my best to stay in United States, like my land, my new land now. And I need to try all my best to make sure that I get the citizenship.”

Refugees can become U.S. citizens by waiting five years, and passing the test administered to immigrants seeking citizenship.

While Zetho appears to have overcome the challenges he’s faced, some refugees struggle, or find the stress too much to bear. That’s according to Yvonne Ssempijja of Sebastian Family Psychology practice in Glendale. It provides therapy and psychiatric care to refugees.

“The transition of culture, language, food, loneliness. So it’s a lot of challenges that are manifested into mental health issues.”

Ssempijja says common symptoms include depression, anxiety and nightmares. She finds the reactions similar to those of patients from Milwaukee’s central city, who’ve experienced trauma.

“They’ve witnessed their relatives being killed, kids experiencing gun violence and rape, and stuff like that.”

However, one difference in clients from other countries is that they’re often reluctant to open up, according to Ssempijja’s husband Sebastian, who’s a psychologist.

“Internationally, the exposure to mental health services is still very low, so there’s still a very high stigma. When it comes to refugees, it’s an even higher threshold -- whether I’m from Uganda, Sudan, the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, Burma -- reaching out to mental health has always meant that somebody is ‘going crazy.’ And of course, we know that that’s not accurate.”

The challenge, according to one of the clinic’s psychotherapists, Leng Lee, is that “mental health” is primarily a western concept.

“For every refugee population, they have a cultural interpretation of whatever they’re experiencing. For example, in our Hmong community, we don’t really see it as mental health, but it’s more related to our soul and our spirit.”

Lee came here as a refugee when he was five.

“In the past, a lot of members in the Hmong community would go to a shaman for mental health needs. Whether it’s depression, whether it’s anxiety, whether it’s some kind of trauma. But now we’re starting to see where shaman leaders will say, ‘you know, what you’re experiencing -- it’s possible that it’s a medical issue, that it’s a mental health issue.’”

To build such bridges, Lee says the clinic reaches out to respected leaders of refugee communities, to learn about their cultures and establish trust.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.
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