Battling Addiction in the East African Community 

Zaara Nayak, Editor-In-Chief

   This past summer, I participated in ThreeSixty’s News Reporter Academy. Journalists from the Black Press, MPR, and Star Tribune advised us on how to conduct an interview and write a coherent, concise, article. The article highlights the importance of health equity, and I interviewed Yussuf Shafie about his work with the Alliance Wellness Center.  

Battling Addiction in the East African Community 

The 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.  

   Shafie acknowledges more work is needed to destigmatize substance abuse in the Muslim community, which he says 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 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 challenged 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 29% increase in overdose 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 says his experience shows that some in the Somali community turn to drugs as a temporary solution. 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 says. 

   But Shafie says 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 and be able to serve additional patients.  

   The center currently provides in-patient care only for men, but he has been advised to integrate a women’s in-patient program into the center- an idea which Shafie is exploring. 

   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 young clients. 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.  

   While Shafie still remembers the neighborhood alcoholic he encountered at age 12, he also 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 – 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 community. He wants people to think about substance abuse success stories and encourage people to share their own stories.  

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