Battling Addiction in the East African Community

Alliance Wellness Center assists those struggling with substance abuse in the Twin Cities.

Yussuf Shafie knows firsthand how substance abuse impacts the Twin Cities’ East African community. At 12 years old, he frequently witnessed a neighborhood alcoholic causing disturbances, usually resulting in police intervention.

Incidents like these drove Shafie to dig deeper into the effects of substance abuse.

As an adult in 2015, he founded the Alliance Wellness Center in Bloomington, which tackles the substance abuse stigma within East African communities.

Yussuf Shafie
Yussuf Shafie

Shafie acknowledges more work is needed to destigmatize substance abuse in the Muslim community, which he said is “in denial”of these issues. Islam forbids the use of alcohol and drugs, making it difficult for substance abuse victims to reach out to centers where cultural and religious barriers will inhibit their ability to receive help. This is why the Alliance Wellness Center provides Swahili and Somali translators, a diverse staff, psychoeducation and group therapy.

In the seven years since the center’s founding as a one-man operation serving a few patients, it has grown to employ a staff of 28, serving 50 patients with 36 beds for in-patient clients.

The Alliance Wellness Center is struggling to keep up with the opioid crisis, which shows no signs of slowing. COVID-19 has only made things worse.

In COVID’s first year, 2020, there was a 31 percent increase in over- dose deaths in the United States over the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Minnesota, 678 people died of an overdose in 2020, a record high compared to 427 deaths in 2019, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Shafie said his experience shows that some in the Somali community turn to drugs as a temporary solu- tion. The increase in overdoses and growing drug use shows there is a need for centers like the Alliance Wellness Center.

“A lot of people were depressed and (felt) anxiety, and people lost their jobs and loved ones,” he said.

But Shafie said there were also silver linings during the pandemic. The center turned to online platforms, for example, making it more convenient and accessible for clients to receive support. This continues to be an option for those unable to attend in-person therapy.

Shafie’s aspirations for the Alliance Wellness Center include expanding staff to serve the increase in clientele. In the next few years, he would like to increase capacity by adding 15 beds to be able to serve additional patients. The center currently provides in-patient care only for men.

Outside of the Alliance Wellness Center, Shafie makes it a priority to reach out to mosques, schools and youth organizations to spread his message of addressing substance abuse. He targets his work outside of the center toward youth since he has seen an uptick in youngclients. The most effective way to tackle that is to encourage people to share their stories and keep conversations alive to inspire others to keep fighting.

Shafie remembers a client who relapsed on his first day at the center. After working with Shafie, this client has been sober for a little more than a year, has returned to his academic career and has received a Peer Support Specialist certification, which is a title for individuals with “lived experience” who work to assist others facing substance abuse and mental illness. Shafie also frequently attends former clients’ graduations and weddings, which he finds rewarding and affirms the efficacy of the center.

Ultimately, Shafie wants people to acknowledge the substance abuse issue in the Muslim com- munity. He wants people to think about substance abuse success stories and encourage people to share their own stories.

“People can recover. Recovery is possible,” Shafie said.

This story was written by ThreeSixty Journalism’s summer 2022 News Reporter Academy high school students. The Academy and its theme of holistic health equity were supported by Center for Prevention at Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota, which connected students with story topics and sources.