Four refugees from Somalia, Iraq, and Sudan spoke about the 2006 documentary Rain in a Dry Land, which depicts the refugee experience, and their personal experiences with immigration on Feb. 15.
The four panelists spoke with Candace Black, postdoctoral fellow at the Research Program on Children and Adversity at the Boston College School of Social Work. Rain in a Dry Land, directed by Anne Makepeace, is an Emmy-nominated feature documentary that follows two refugee Somali Bantu families throughout their first years after migrating to the United States and the struggles that come with this transition. The SSW and Yale MacMillan Center Program on Refugees, Forced Displacement and Humanitarian Responses & the Council on African Studies hosted the Q&A.
The four panelists included Nieda Abbas and Siham Osman, who work at Havenly Treats, as well as Rilwan Osman, who works with the Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services (MEIRS), and Nadifa Mohamed, who works with AK Health and Social Services. Havenly Treats is a cafe in New Haven, Conn., founded by Abbas who is a chef from Iraq. Havenly Treats offers paid work experience, adult education, and advocacy training for refugee women from Arabic- and Spanish-speaking countries.
Siham Osman is just one of the women who benefited from her experience with Havenly Treats. She now works at the University of New Haven and is a leader in the Sudanese refugee community in New Haven, having resettled there after leaving Sudan 22 years ago. Rilwan Osman work at MEIRS, a program that educates immigrants and refugees on the processes of gaining citizenship and engaging with their new communities
Rilwan Osman, born in Somalia, lived for years in a refugee camp in Kenya. Mohamed arrived at a refugee camp in Kenya at just one day old, and she and her family were resettled in Lewiston, Maine, where she attended school and now works as a community health worker. Rilwan Osman worked to form an organization to help support Somali refugees also in the Lewiston area.
The panelists were asked a number of questions over the course of the webinar, with the first two questions focusing on their reactions to the film while the others discussed their own experiences as immigrants. Black first asked what the film meant to the panelists and if it reflected their experiences as refugees. Rilwan Osman said he was excited to see his experience shared with everyone and that he knew some of the families featured in the film.
“They went through the same thing that I went through when I came to this country … ” Rilwan Osman said. “Historically, there is not a lot of written history about them.”
Siham Osman said that although she was impressed that the movie showed how people encounter difficulties when migrating to a new place, many people do not secure the help the families shown in the movie received.
The panelists highlighted three difficulties when discussing their own experiences: the language barrier, adjusting to American cultural norms, and finding housing.
Rilwan Osman pointed out that many refugee children who grow up in America lose a sense of their culture and traditions, with many unable to speak their parents’ native language. As a result, he said, generational conflicts arise between parents and their children because they have very different expectations and experiences—particularly when these children meet their friends’ American parents.
Abbas spoke about her needs when resettling. She said that some refugee organizations were helpful, but she would have benefited more if these organizations helped refugees learn to speak English. Not having a group of people to support you is a challenge, Rilwan Osman said, and it is even more challenging if there is a language barrier.
Rilwan Osman explained that mental health stigmas can create additional problems for refugees. Instead of seeking help, problems, such as financial issues, can pile up and create long-term consequences for families.
“A lot of people, especially our parents, don’t believe or don’t think talking to someone helps and medication is only for when you have a pain, not when you have something … somebody cannot see or you cannot describe,” Rilwan Osman said.
Mohamed said destigmatizing mental health in her community of refugees in Lewiston ultimately boils down to leaders acknowledging the impact mental health has on their communities. As an example, she pointed to the initial suspicion around the coronavirus. People were afraid to get tested for the coronavirus because it was considered shameful to contract the virus among her peers, Mohamed said. In order to destigmatize mental health, Mohamed said community leaders must normalize this issue, which is how they were able to change people’s mind about the coronavirus.
“When the word came out [about COVID-19] from the community leaders … we saw the decrease of stigma. … ” Mohamed said. “We wanted to accept and also to realize that this is the reality and there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Screenshot by Erin Pender