Reintegration & Recovery >> Community Center
Intercultural Support Center
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
First written in 1833 by Emma Lazarus, this poem – “New Colossus” – is engraved on the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands. Beautiful words for a refugee, but what do they mean to the refugee who is also a person with a mental illness? Can a refugee-consumer also breathe free here in the United States?
Yes, they can. And nowhere are Lazarus’ noble sentiments more apparent for consumers than at the Intercultural Support Center (ISC) of southeast Portland, Oregon. The Center provides programs and services to refugees, a high percentage of whom yearn to breathe free of their mental illnesses.
“Currently, we see about 60 refugee clients each week and 90 percent of these clients have come to America for political asylum,” explained Ami Hsu, Associate Manager of the ISC program. Clients are primarily referred to ISC by government agencies (social security, social welfare), employers, physicians or Portland’s Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.
These 60 individuals represent six language groups and numerous countries (Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Central and South America). The majority of them have experienced trauma of some kind. Many have escaped from war-torn countries, witnessing the destruction of their homes and, in some cases, the violent death of one or more family members. As a result, a large percentage of these clients suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, primarily manifested in frequent nightmares, flashbacks, depression, intrusive thoughts and an inability to function consistently. More than one-third of ISC’s clients battle schizophrenia, experiencing auditory and/or visual hallucinations.
Adapting to a new culture is difficult for anyone. A person who leaves his or her homeland and moves to the United States often finds that the isolation caused by language, cultural and financial barriers can cause significant psychological distress. Their isolation, and their distress, are severely compounded when mental illnesses are an additional factor.
The ISC acts as a drop-in center where consumers can check in with others who care. “They let us know how they are doing, and we encourage them to participate in our many programs and services that will help them transition into this culture,” said Hsu.
Programs offered focus on helping members integrate into mainstream America. These include English as a second language, problem-solving, vocational training and money management. “When these people come to us, in many cases they know almost nothing about how to problem-solve in this society, and we teach them the basics – how to call for emergency services, how to ask for directions, how to understand a bus schedule,” Hsu noted.
Vocational training at the ISC covers a wide range of areas, from office administration to landscaping, all focused on teaching skills that will result in meaningful work. In part because it is less dependent on a fully grammatical knowledge of English than other vocations, landscaping is understandably one of the more popular vocational choices. “We work with other community agencies and, in some cases, they can provide our clients with paying positions – for example the wages earned from the landscaping jobs are actually supported by St. Vincent DePaul, a fellow non-profit community service agency,” Hsu explained.
The ISC’s accomplishments must be regarded differently than those of most other drop-in centers. As with most centers, ISC provides rehabilitative services to reintegrate people back into society. But, unlike other centers, the society people are being reintegrated into is a new, and often completely unfamiliar culture. Reaching out to these people as refugees while communicating messages of hope that addresses their mental illnesses makes for an even greater challenge. But, nonetheless, there are notable successes.
Andrew M. is one of them. Andrew M. is 38-year-old Laotian male diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression. For the past five years Andrew has been attending weekly sessions at the ISC, and his focus is on building a better life for himself.
“I come to the group to learn something else that I don’t know very well, like English. English has helped me speak new words that I didn’t know before. I come to the center because it also helps when I cook, garden, and have fun, like going on the field trips,” Andrew explains. “ISC gives me a place to go instead of staying home everyday. That is boring. I don’t know what else I can do. Would you expect me to do drugs and drink alcohol or go gambling? Do you think it will help me? NO. That is why going to ISC helps me keep myself busy.”