Ask the Expert: Yussuf Shafie of Alliance Wellness Center

Yussuf ShafieWe feature an expert in the mental health and substance use disorder field to answer questions. This issue we talk to Yussuf Shafie of Alliance Wellness Center in Bloomington, Minnesota about providing treatment to the East African population.

Q: Please share with our readers a bit about yourself. 

I’m Yussuf Shafie, owner and director of Alliance Wellness Center, a culturally specific treatment center that I’ve owned since 2015. Alliance Wellness Center works with East African immigrants and refugees, primarily Somali. We do get some referrals for Eritrean, Sudanese, and Ethiopians and work with people from those cultures, too.

Q: How do people find you?

Folks come from a lot of different sources. People can call; they can look it up online. Many who find us have talked to people who have been through the program. Some clients get referred to us from other treatment centers, from jails. Others are court-mandated to get treatment. Some are sent by their families who just want to help their loved ones.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges that an African immigrant or refugee may face when living with substance use and/or mental health disorders? 

The biggest challenge is shame; the clients feel a lot of shame. Our culture hasn’t been educated about addiction or mental health. A lot of people struggle with understanding that mental health and addiction are a disease. Families won’t admit that one of their family members has mental health issues or that they died from an overdose.

Q: It sounds as if there’s a stigma around mental health and substance use disorders in the East African and West African communities? What do you think contributes to this? What steps can be taken to reduce the stigma? 

The biggest challenge is shame; the clients feel a lot of shame.That’s a good question. People just don’t understand substance abuse as a disease. It’s new to us. Our culture teaches us not to talk about addiction or mental health. It’s part of the challenge.

Q: What do you do if you can’t talk about it?

We pretend like everything is fine. We hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah. {At this point we both laughed.} I mean, we all know that’s not true, right? We – the counselors who are trying to help – are kind of challenged. However, I like a challenge. A lot of the shame comes from not understanding what addiction really is, but I think people are finally coming around. It took a while. It really took quite a while. Finally, we’re getting there. We at Alliance Wellness Center invested a lot of time educating the community about these issues, talking about how addiction is a disease and that it can be treated.

Q: It sounds as if you’re building the whole foundation while you’re building the Alliance Wellness Center. What were some of the things that you did to educate your community?

We had people who had gone through our recovery program share their experience of what they went through in community settings and that helped a lot. They talked about what their issues were, what they overcame, what helped them, and what didn’t. We also offered a lot of Zoom classes. Not just for clients but for families. For example, we had classes on how to love someone with addiction.

Q: It sounds as if you had to build the foundation for recovery under the wellness center at the same time as you built the Alliance Wellness Center.

Yes, pretty much.

Q: Does the Somali community feel that the AA program works for them?

The concepts are kind of hard for people to grasp, because the ideas go in circles, there’s a lot of the God stuff and Higher Power, that confuses people because if you’re Muslim, you’re not supposed to drink alcohol or do drugs, so it’s kind of complicated.

There’s a group in New York called the Islamic Millati that’s AA-Muslim based. It’s a group that has adapted AA to make sense for the Muslim population.*

*Editor’s Note: See resources in Question 13 for further information.

Q: What are some of the unique cultural traditions, customs, language needs, and spiritual considerations that can be drawn upon to help with recovery? Do these vary among the communities? 

Prayer is a big thing. Spirituality is a big thing, we try to talk with them about their Higher Power, but it’s different for every client, because for some people spirituality and religion can be triggering. When the client is open to spirituality it might mean doing prayer five times a day, reading the Koran, having an Imam come and talk to the client about forgiveness and how Islam can help them overcome addiction. For others, that could trigger more shame rather than being helpful. Some clients feel guilty, like ‘I’m a bad son,’ or ‘I’m a bad daughter.’ The spirituality aspect can trigger more shame rather than being helpful.

Q: What other things do you do that are culturally specific.

Unfortunately, we lost a lot of young people to opioid overdoses during Covid.The client might be ignorant about addiction, but also families need educating so that they understand that this person is sick. People think, “He stole from me.” Or “She did A, B, and C to me.” Both the client and the family need educating to see it as an illness.

Q: Are there language barriers? Is there a need for more East African counselors? Do you have enough counselors?

There are a few people who don’t understand English. We have Somali counselors, I’m a counselor, so we have Somalis who are credentialed that speak the language. That makes it easier for us. We need more Somali counselors. In order to raise awareness of this need, we talk to students in the schools and encourage them to go into addiction studies or become a social worker. Many of the people who go to college for addiction studies have either experienced addiction problems themselves or someone in their family has. This is true for Somali counselors, as well.

Q: What impact has Covid had? 

It’s been really hard. We love to sit around and socialize. The whole isolation and quarantine were really difficult for our community. Unfortunately, we lost a lot of young people to opioid overdoses during Covid. People were using them at a higher rate because they were just at home. Plus, people had access to a lot of unemployment money. It really hit hard for a lot of people which is unfortunate. When the state shutdown, we offered all of our programs virtually during that time.

Q: Did you have any access to research during your studies that was specific to the impact of addiction on the Somali and East African population?

There wasn’t any research on East Africans and addiction. There isn’t much literature.

Q: What are some local and national resources we can pass along to our readers?

Again, the Islamic Millati group.

Alliance Wellness Center has an after-care group with 25-30 members.

The following resources were added by the interviewer:

Yussuf Shafie MSW, LICSW is a graduate of the University of MN. Yussuf is an active and well-respected member of the addiction community. He is a licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselor ( LADC) with the Board of Behavioral Health. He completed his internship with the Community University Health Care Center as a Social Work Triage Specialist, and he continued on as a Mental Health Practitioner with CUHCC. In 2015, Yussuf opened Alliance Wellness Center in Bloomington, MN, a DHS licensed Substance Abuse Outpatient and Inpatient Treatment Program. He is Board member of the Minnesota Trauma Project and Minnesota Recovery Connection. Yussuf’s passion is to bring wellness to those affected by addiction and mental health problems.’
If you have a question for the experts, or you are an expert interested in being featured, please email Experts have not been compensated for their advice. A special thank you to Mary E. Berg who curated this “Ask the Expert.”

Last Updated on May 29, 2024