By Molly Chapple

Thousands of Yazidis found themselves stranded on a mountain top in Sinjar, Iraq, in August 2014 faced with two choices: descend and risk being killed by Sunni extremists or stay and risk death by hunger or thirst.

This was the terrifying situation that many of the minority sect faced until an American airstrike allowed the majority of them to be evacuated. Many of those on the mountaintop were children who now attend school in Lincoln.

The harrowing situation in Iraq is only one example of the traumas endured by many refugee and immigrant students in Lincoln Public Schools. Genocide. Political turmoil. The death of a family member. The kidnapping of a loved one. The list is long of the disturbing events these students have witnessed firsthand, LPS officials say.

Oscar Pohirieth

Oscar Rios Pohirieth is just one of the many counselors that work with LPS refugee and immigrant students.

In an effort to help, LPS decided to use $152,000 in federal money to create a mental health care program specifically for refugee students during the 2015-2016 school year, according to Linda Hix, LPS federal programs director.

“We have had some of our bilingual liaisons and our school counselors and administrators share concerns over the years about kids that maybe were having trouble making adjustments,” she said.

Many of these students replay the traumatic events they’ve suffered in their heads on a daily basis, said Oscar Rios Pohirieth, LPS cultural specialist and bilingual liaison coordinator for federal programs. Although they are physically present in the classroom, their minds often wander back to that painful place and they become mentally absent.

“All they want to know is how they could have avoided that moment in time that was physically and emotionally painful to them,” he said. “That’s why they play these ‘memory movies’ every single day, to answer that question.”

Many educators became aware of this mental absence in their students, Hix said.

“Teachers build positive relationships with their students and at times students share what they have been through,” she said. “Teachers may notice comments, drawings, or interactions with other that give red flags. Students who are refugees and have experienced trauma typically don’t miss school, but may have trouble with focus or engagement in activities.”

Where the help comes from

As part of the program, LPS hired several counselors who have had specific training with refugees to come to the schools to work with students. LPS has agreements with mental health organizations such as the Child Guidance Center, Transition-All Counseling and Ivana Jelavic Psychotherapy to work with students. Some smaller contracts were made to hire other therapists, Hix said.

Individual therapy has always been a resource for students at LPS. However, this is the first time counseling has been targeted for students who were immigrants and refugees, according to Hix.

The money comes from the federal government through the Department of Education to help with schools that see a big increase in immigrant and refugee students. Last year, the percentage of English Language Learners at LPS — students whose first language is not English — increased by 35 percent.

But there are many obstacles to providing mental health care for refugee and immigrant students. Pohirieth, one of the counselors who works with refugee families, said overcoming the stigma surrounding mental health is only one of the concerns.

“It will take time, it will take trust, it will take a community effort (to overcome the stigma),” he said.

Addressing the obstacles

But before counselors and therapists can address the stigma of mental health, Pohirieth said, they must fix the stigma that many Americans have toward refugees and immigrants.

“A refugee family will not feel comfortable going to a mental health area if they don’t even feel comfortable in Lincoln,” he said. “If we cannot change that environment, we will never be able to reach the heart of the problem.”

Another concern, Pohirieth said, is the lack of culturally sensitive mental health services in Lincoln. Unfortunately, there aren’t many counselors available from the home countries of the refugees. Counseling is done in the American way, per se, and that can create an uncomfortable atmosphere for many refugee families, he said.

For example, many refugees avoid therapy because of language barriers and trust issues resulting from a lack of understanding of the American mental health system¸ Lincoln author and psychologist Mary Pipher notes in her book, “The Middle of Everywhere,” which chronicled the experience of refugees living in Lincoln.

Western mental health system is reliant on verbal expressiveness and individualism, Pipher explained. However, many refugees come from collective cultures and simply don’t understand why they should talk about how they feel. And some refugees believe in seeking help in other ways, such as visiting a shrine, a medicine man or tribal elders, Pipher wrote.

“I have no doubt that some of the techniques we have in the U.S. could serve well those families who come from abroad,” Pohirieth said. “But for many of our refugee and immigrant families that type of language and that type of cultural perspective in the area of mental health will not make any sense.

How the process works

Before counselors even begin to choose a mental health technique, many refugees will want to see that the mental health provider understands the young refugee’s culture in some way. That will tell them that the person is not there to criticize or change them, but rather to listen and help. Pohirieth said that biggest challenge now is figuring out a way to supplement the techniques with some sensitive cultural perspectives to make refugees feel relaxed and welcome.

As part of the LPS mental health program, refugee parents are encouraged to speak with the mental health care provider before the students meet one-on-one with a counselor. This will help provide information about the child that will let the counselors and therapists into that child’s world.

“We want to get a sense of the perception of mom and dad, or whoever is available to come,” Pohirieth said. “We want to be able to see what they see and how they perceive the life of their child that we are going to work with.”

Dakheel Ahmed, refugee case worker and employment specialist at Catholic Social Services, thinks it is a good idea for the counselors and therapists to have strong communication with the parents.

“Nobody knows about the kids more than parents,” he said. “They know exactly what their kids have been through and they can provide a lot of details.”

Ahmed said many refugee children he meets struggle with the terrifying moments they have been through, such as seeing their parents killed in front of them.

“I know they are kids, but (they) remember those moments,” he said. “Just going through that stage of life and seeing that terrifying stuff can really affect them. It can be directly or indirectly. It can happen right away or 20 years later.”

A work in progress

Hix, the LPS federal programs director, referred to this year’s mental health program as a pilot and information as to whether or not the program is successful won’t be available until next fall. If the counseling efforts show an improvement to student learning, LPS will consider looking for grant money to help continue the program, she said.

At the end of the school year, LPS will review data including how many students have participated and how many sessions they attended to review the success of the program. Hix said LPS will count on teachers and counselors to share whether or not they have seen improvement in students’ classroom behaviors and comfort levels.

“We want to see results first and then get the funds to continue,” Hix said. “I know that some staff have reported that they really feel like this has been a help to families.”

Although many of these refugee and immigrant students have suffered severe emotional and physical trauma, they are extremely resilient. No matter what type of life situation they are in, many of them still smile, Pohirieth said.

“They will play. They will laugh. They will have hopes just like you and I. They will have dreams,” he said. “But they will have those moments in time where they are going to be gone for a while, but then they will come back because of that powerful spirit that they have.”