By CHRISTOPHER MAGAN | Pioneer Press,
Yussuf Shafie saw that fellow refugees who fled their war-torn Somali homeland were struggling, and he wanted to find a way to help.
“People have seen a lot of horrific events that human beings should never see,” said Shafie, who escaped the Somali civil war and immigrated to Burnsville when he was 12. “They come with these problems to the states.”
Many Somali refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems from their experiences back home, and they often turn to drugs and alcohol, Shafie said.
“They don’t know how to cope, so they use substances to cope with their mental health issues,” he said.
In 2015, Shafie founded the Alliance Wellness Center in Bloomington, the metro area’s first mental health center that specializes in treating patients with East African backgrounds. He wanted to create a place where East Africans would feel comfortable discussing the problems they face.
“A lot of my people are not educated when it comes to addiction and mental health,” he said. “There is a lot of stigma around this in my country.”
Opening the Alliance Wellness Center was the culmination of a long journey for Shafie. After moving to the Twin Cities in 2000, he graduated from Burnsville High School and enrolled at Inver Hills Community College in 2007.
At first, Shafie said, he struggled at the Inver Grove Heights community college. “It was a place where I learned a lot when I was young,” he recalled.
Shafie eventually found his footing in school and went on to take a leadership role on campus and be elected president of the school’s Somali Student Club.
Ann Schroder, a faculty librarian at Inver Hills who was an adviser to the club at the time, remembers Shafie as a consensus-builder.
“He was always looking for the good in people and always trying to help,” Schroder said. “I think (opening the mental health center) was a natural progression for him. It’s just the type of person he is.”
Shafie earned an associate’s degree in human services from Inver Hills before heading to Metropolitan State University for his bachelor’s and then studying at the University of Minnesota for a master’s degree. This spring, Inver Hills is honoring Shafie as an outstanding alumnus and he’ll speak at the college’s commencement ceremony in May.
“I’m very blessed and thankful they selected me,” Shafie said. “It was a surprise.”
While he was working on his master’s at the U, Shafie and his sister Ifrah opened Burnsville’s first Somali restaurant, Tawakal. The success of the restaurant helped Shafie open Alliance Wellness Center after he sold his stake in Tawakal to fund his new venture.
“I wanted to help my people. The need was there,” he said. “This is where my heart is. This is what it is all about for me.”
Shafie hopes that through his wellness center, he can continue to heal his community and erase the stigma that surrounds mental health treatment.
“I want to set a good example for all of our youth,” Shafie said. “I want them to know it is OK to struggle with these things. They are common and treatable.”