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Trump’s refugee talk misses realities in the US

Away from political debates about refugees, some previously run-down cities are being rejuvenated by their arrival.

BUFFALO, UNITED STATES // When Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a halt on Muslims entering the United States, he was probably not thinking about Nadeen Yusuf, a hard-working Iraqi refugee who lives in Buffalo with her family.

A year after coming to the US, Yusuf already speaks decent English. She wakes at 4am each day for her shift in a supermarket bakery before heading to run her craft market stall. Down the line, she wants to buy a house and manage a home-making school for teenage girls.

Not only is she living the American dream of upward mobility, but families like the Yusufs are credited with breathing new life into crime-ridden parts of Buffalo and helping a rust-belt city turn the page on decades of decline.

That is why it stings doubly hard when Trump and others say she is unwelcome.

“Even when it’s only 1 percent of people who say something to make you upset, it will hurt,” Yusuf, 44, told Al Jazeera.

“I’m glad I’m here. If I was in my country, I would never get this job or my kids would never have a school like this. We are doing well, but I can’t say I am happy. Because you leave all of your life, your memory, your parents, your sisters, everything.”

The Yusufs fled Baghdad by car in 2006 during the sectarian bloodletting that followed the US-led invasion of 2003. Syria proved just as dangerous; they finally passed the US’ stringent security checks and gained refugee status while in Turkey in 2014.

Now she talks about growing her business by learning macrame and other skills via YouTube. Refugee agencies have helped her “too much” with English classes, handouts, cheap rent and other support, but not everyone has rolled out the red carpet, she said.

“They don’t say anything directly but they don’t trust us,” Yusuf explained.

“Some people think because we are refugees we are poor, did not go to school and came just for benefits. We came because we did not want to lose our life, not for money or welfare.”

Buffalo has become a refugee hub over the past decade. The surrounding county absorbed 1,380 of the 4,085 refugees to settle in New York State in 2014. Many had fled war, hardship and persecution in Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia, Congo and Bhutan.

Nowadays, 8.4 percent of Buffalo’s population were born overseas and 15.6 percent speak a language other than English at home, according to the US Census Bureau, which counts refugees, immigrants and other newcomers together.

Like Yusuf and her craft business, refugees are linked with industriousness. They open shops, restaurants and other small businesses, often on the city’s West Side, where locals can now dine on delicacies from Burmese black rice to Ethiopian injera.

A few decades back, it was a run-down hotbed of vice and crime. Now it boasts supermarkets, eateries and mobile phone sellers. Once-dilapidated buildings sport new paint jobs and property values are climbing.

“It was like a war zone. Abandoned houses, drugs, prostitution,” resident Karen Greenspan told Al Jazeera. “There’s a really neat resurgence because of refugees and immigrants. They’re ‘rehabbing’ houses, opening restaurants, stores. It’s bringing life back to the city.”

More than 16 percent of high-street businesses in the Buffalo area are owned by foreign-born entrepreneurs, according to a 2013 report by the Americas Society and the Fiscal Policy Institute, called Bringing Vitality to Main Street.

Buffalo needs it. The city’s heyday has long passed.

Despite its harsh winters, Buffalo grew rapidly after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, which linked the Great Lakes with the Hudson River, New York City and the Atlantic for a lucrative trade in wheat and other goods.

Shipyards, iron and steel mills, meat-packing plants, flour mills, and railway industries followed. In the 1890s, engineers gave the city another boon by harnessing waterpower from the nearby Niagara River and the world-famous waterfalls.

But as trains and lorries replaced barges in the 20th century, Buffalo was increasingly sidelined. Its population fell from a peak of 580,000 in the 1950s to about 259,000 today as factories closed and left the region a forsaken rust belt.

Buffalo’s mayor, Byron Brown, says that downward trend could be over. The city is witnessing a renaissance thanks to refugees and immigrants, as well as empty nesters moving back from the suburbs and millennials opting for cheaper places such as Buffalo over New York City and Chicago.

“In 1950, we were as big as the city of Boston, for example. Every decade since we have lost population. It is finally projected that for the first time since the 1950 census we might see our first population gain in 2020,” Brown told Al Jazeera.

Buffalo has also been the centrepiece of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s effort to revitalise the upstate economy, with a $1bn pledge – the so-called “Buffalo Billion” – for creating 14,000 jobs via a solar panel factory, a drugs research complex and other schemes.

Brown, the grandson of Caribbean migrants, holds up Buffalo as a model of integration. While Republican politicians across the US call for undocumented Latinos to be kicked out or the door closed on Syrians and Iraqis, such divisive rhetoric carries little sway in Buffalo, he said.

“We haven’t had protests. We haven’t had buildings burned. We haven’t had a house of worship defaced. But we don’t want to get to that point,” Brown said.

Sean Mulligan, a staffer in the city council, says there have been grumbles in public meetings, with residents complaining that newcomers cannot speak English, but that Buffalo is mostly living up to its nickname as the City of Good Neighbours.

Buffalonians are “closely connected to their own history”, Mulligan told Al Jazeera.

Sited on the land of Seneca Indians, Buffalo has received German, Irish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian and Latino migrants, among others, as well as blacks fleeing the south via the Underground Railroad, a slavery-era web of escape routes and safe houses.

“Buffalo was losing jobs way before the refugees arrived,” Mulligan added. “The fact that people are willing to come and live here is really appreciated.”

Not all officials toe the mayor’s line. After the November attack in Paris claimed 131 lives, county politician Joseph Lorigo said Syrians should not be welcomed to Buffalo, warning: “The risk to our community is far too great.”

Last year, Arafat Nagi, a Yemeni-American from nearby Lackawanna was arrested after buying night-vision goggles, a machete and body armour and travelling overseas to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which controls swaths of Iraq and Syria.

His town, home to many Yemeni immigrants, has been closely watched since the so-called Lackawanna Six were arrested in 2002 for attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan shortly before the 9/11 attacks.

Last month, two Iraq-born Palestinian men who lived in the US as refugees were arrested in Texas and California on terror-related charges.

Rights groups say they were isolated cases and that most refugees eschew groups such as ISIL. But while their narrative of diligent workers reviving run-down towns is compelling, it is not the whole story.

Many refugees cannot speak English, which makes it hard for them to find jobs. And qualifications gained overseas can be worthless in the US, with the result that refugees with PhDs sometimes end up driving taxis.

Adolphe Chebeya, 35, has been in the US for only three months and is daunted by his new home. He fled Congo after government forces killed his brother and threatened him. He spent four years in Uganda before landing a US visa.

Now he studies English and gets $350 each month, food stamps and free housing. He is worried about his benefits drying up, and wonders why his experience in a university in Africa has not lined him up for a good job in the US.

“They’re not interested in me. I did university. I worked with many international organisations, but they put me back to live on zero, to learn the ABC. I’m obligated to do it. If I don’t go, they won’t give me food, they won’t pay my rent,” Chebeya told Al Jazeera.

Buffalo’s largest refugee contingent hails from Myanmar. It has been plagued by a spate of burglaries that is widely believed to be the work of teenage refugees. But victims, fearful of the police shakedowns they experienced back home, seldom dial 911.

Some have lived in jungles without electricity, leading to mishaps with appliances and burned-out kitchens. Many fall victim to crooked landlords or estate agents seeking to unload shoddy properties at premium prices.

Adapting to the US can be tough for people who are traumatised by having lived in squalid camps for years, enduring torture or persecution at the hands of government officials or seeing loved ones get blown apart by rocket fire.

According to Lamin Tamang, a Bhutanese refugee who reached the US in 2012, most of his compatriots suffer “some kind of mental illness” after bearing the brunt of a government deportation of ethnic Nepalese in the 1990s.

“People struggle with the challenges of a new country,” Tamang told Al Jazeera.

“They are scared of being shot, afraid of the presence of guns in America. They see terrible crimes on television and think the same could happen to them. After they stay a couple of years, they get to know what is real and go outside without fear.”

Back in Nepal’s refugee camps, Tamang taught schoolchildren for five years. In the US, he works as a translator for Bhutanese refugees with mental health issues and spends his evenings at college studying for a US teaching qualification.

US refugee agencies target cities such as Buffalo for their relatively low rents. This also means they send newcomers to poor areas with high unemployment and overstretched social services. Buffalo’s poverty rate is 30.7 percent.

“When I imagined America, I imagined New York City or Boston, like in the movies. But I was put somewhere in the junk, I would say. Where there are less people and the housing isn’t comfortable. I consider myself in kind of a slum area,” Tamang said.

Refugee children have their own problems, often getting low grades in schools where teachers struggle amid the dozens of languages in use. Beset by abysmal graduation rates, Buffalo’s Lafayette High School is set to close.

The challenges and opportunities faced by Buffalo’s refugees are replicated across the country.

According to the Americas Society report, refugees and other immigrants are a driving force in regenerating run-down areas. Nationally, they own 61 percent of petrol stations, 58 percent of dry cleaners and 53 percent of grocery stores.

Immigrants give a “critical population boost” to declining areas, says the 42-page study. Cities such as Philadelphia, St Paul and Nashville have pro-immigrant policies. Shrinking cities such as Baltimore, St Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago might do well to take note.

Others highlight the cost of resettling refugees, not the payback.

Jessica Vaughan, an analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, says that the five-year resettlement of each Syrian refugee costs $64,000, which could “break the bank” of the often-poor neighbourhoods where they are typically sent.

The US is the world’s most generous host of refugees, admitting three million since 1975. In that time, the number of those in need has risen. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, warns that 60 million people globally are currently displaced by conflict.

As the European refugee crisis of Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, Somalis, Afghans and others made headlines last year, US President Barack Obama, a Democrat, raised the annual US refugee intake to 85,000, to include 10,000 Syrians displaced by civil war.

His decision was welcomed by some, but also prompted fears of Paris-style attacks on US soil. Trump called for banning all Muslim travel to the US. His lead rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator Ted Cruz, said some resettled refugees should be sent back home.

In November, a Bloomberg Politics poll found that 53 percent of Americans wanted to turn away Syrian refugees. Pew Research Center describes similarly lacklustre support for welcoming Hungarian refugees in 1958, as well as Indochinese in 1979 and Cubans in 1980.

Right-wingers are likely to debate the issue up until November’s presidential election, but efforts by some congressional politicians and state governors to limit refugee numbers and boost security vetting are not being implemented.

None of this seems to bother Yusuf, back at her craft stall in Buffalo. She is too busy with her children’s education and devising new macrame products – from key rings to baby gifts and wall hangings.

She embodies many trademark Republican values: a strong work ethic, devotion to her four children and social conservatism. Yet her religion and war-ravaged homeland put her at odds with much that Republicans espouse.

Nevertheless, she remains upbeat. Her macrame wall decorations feature colourful pictures and pithy maxims to lift the spirits. One of the adages is particularly fitting for the challenges facing Muslim refugees in the US.

“Let your smile change the world, not the world change your smile,” it reads.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.

Crazy Town: mental illness in Mogadishu

After decades of civil war, Somalia is awash in mental illness and without a single trained psychiatrist. That the folk cure for PTSD involves being locked in a room with a hyena isn’t helping.

MOGADISHU //┬áMohamed Abdulla Hersi reclines on a foam mattress in the Habeb Rehabilitation Treatment Center’s crowded mental ward. His eyes are glazed over from antipsychotic drugs, probably some combination of chlorpromazine and haloperidol, but we can’t be sure. His medical files, in a bundle in the facility’s office, do not list his drug regimen.

Hersi doesn’t even bother to swat away the flies gathering on his face and body. Loose-fitting combat fatigues, emblazoned with the light blue and white-star emblem of Somalia’s tattered army, expose his chest and two bullet-sized scars — evidence of the battlefield violence he has suffered since joining one of the country’s myriad militia groups as a boy.

That was back in 1991, when the toppling of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre plunged Somalia into more than two decades of chaos. Subsequent fighting under clan warlords and Muslim hard-liners drew in the United States, Ethiopia, U.N. blue helmets, and a coalition of African forces. Now that African Union troops have dislodged al-Shabab militants from most major cities and a new government is shining a dim ray of hope over parts of the country, the battle-scarred Hersi serves as a reminder to the many challenges Somalia has yet to overcome.

“Where is my M-16? My Kalashnikov?” he murmurs, seemingly unaware that he is miles from the front lines, where his fellow soldiers fight an enemy with links to al Qaeda and ambitions to overthrow the U.N.-backed government. Hersi speaks in a muddled stream of consciousness about gunfights, explosions, and mangled comrades from his years serving under various militia leaders, generals, and presidents. He mumbles about a car-bomb blast he survived in Kismayo, about Osama bin Laden, and about his father, who apparently died in Minneapolis.

“I was 7 when I joined the soldiers. My life has been for fighting only,” he says. “I fought for all the warlords. In Jubaland, Puntland, Mogadishu. I grew up with the war. I joined Somalia’s national forces. I killed al-Shabab, but I do not know how many.”
The 29-year-old calls himself a general — though his fatigues suggest he is an ordinary foot soldier — and yearns to exit the locked compound and return to his comrades in arms. “I have more experience at the bad things,” he says.

Somalia has among the highest rates of mental illness globally, affecting at least one-third of its estimated 10 million people, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Rates are higher in Mogadishu and the turbulent south, where civilians have endured harsher stresses of war, drought, and instability. Many witnesses of bloodshed and atrocities face post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Without treatment, sufferers can experience depression and maniacal, violent fits, and they are more prone to substance abuse — often of the khat plant that sends chewers’ minds and pulses racing. A psychosis, such as schizophrenia, can follow, though the number of Somalis who have been formally diagnosed pales in comparison with the number who are afflicted.

After decades of civil war, Somalia has virtually no capacity to cope with widespread mental illness. The country’s only trained psychiatrist died last year in a car crash; the better-trained staff members at mental health clinics like the Habeb Rehabilitation Treatment Center have only three-month diplomas in basic psychiatry from the WHO. Most are untrained volunteers.

Abdirahman Ali Awale, who founded Mogadishu’s first mental clinic in 2005, has been working feverishly over the years to improve and expand care. The energetic father of nine, known locally as Dr. Habeb — despite his lack of formal medical training — is now one of Somalia’s main mental health-care providers, running half a dozen centers across the country. Relying on paying relatives, private donations, and drugs from the WHO, he has provided care to some 14,000 patients over the last eight years.

“War and conflict is the biggest problem causing mental disorder,” says Habeb, his vocal chords straining from the combination of a birth defect and near-constant yelling. “Nobody supports the mental ill people in Somalia.”

At the Mogadishu facility where Hersi lies, vacantly staring into space, mattresses are strewn across floors, squeezed into storerooms and onto porches. Patients while away the hours in idle gossip and argument, hunkered down under flimsy steel roofs. A few years back, many patients were chained to their beds, but they have since been freed after WHO officials intervened.

“I speak English in many different dialects, but I’d rather speak Latin,” says a young male patient, who claims to have lived in London but whose actual identity remains unclear. “Latin is a general word for English. A word for Latinos. Now the World Cup is Latin. Brazil is hosting the World Cup next year. And I wish you all the best,” he says, wandering out of the overcrowded ward.

To hear Habeb tell it, curing mental illness is cheap and simple — just a case of drugs, know-how, and some rest. Most patients stay for between a few days and several months, though some have been locked up for years. Once his patients are discharged, however, there is little follow-up to assess whether they relapse. Patient records are barely four pages long, and on many documents, most sections are left blank.

As limited as the care is for patients in Habeb’s clinics, however, the situation for the majority of Somalis suffering from mental trauma is far worse. In much of the country, modern medicine is not the first approach to curing mental illness. Because conditions ranging from epilepsy to schizophrenia are widely believed to be the result of possession by spirits or djinns, cures are often sought in faith and folklore. Mullahs routinely tie sufferers to trees and flog them with branches in order to exorcise demons. In rural areas, according to WHO officials, the mentally ill are sometimes locked indoors with a hyena for three-day stretches. Local legend has it that the arched-back scavengers possess mystical powers and can eat the evil spirits that poison the mind. Uncontrollable victims of mental trauma have simply been beaten to death by villagers.

Even in downtown Mogadishu, it is clear that few of the city’s wild-eyed denizens receive treatment. On one street, a dreadlocked woman pulls down her dress and exposes her breasts. Locals say her husband and seven children perished from disease. Elsewhere, a man grimaces by the roadside. In his hand is a bunch of khat, a socially accepted but addictive stimulant. Under a nearby bridge, unemployed homeless men with bloodshot eyes rest on flattened cardboard boxes after a night’s leaf-chewing.

These sufferers roam free. Others are locked down, out of sight. Abubakar Mohamed Sheikhow, 23, was chained by his wrists and ankles in a metal shack in southwest Mogadishu for 12 months before one of Habeb’s rescue teams located him last year. Neighbors had restrained him after he violently attacked his mother.

Dowlay Hassaney, a 27-year-old schizophrenic, was chained to a bush in Eel-Adde, some 55 miles southwest of Mogadishu, when health workers found her in 2011. Her husband had been apparently undeterred by her mental state: She gave birth three times during eight years spent shackled in the sun, according to Habeb. Mobile teams from Habeb’s mental-health facilities have saved roughly 2,500 mentally ill Somalis from chains in the southern part of the country, but Habeb guesses that another 5,000 remain shackled by their families in Mogadishu alone.

Bethuel Isoe, a psychologist with the Italian charity Group for Transcultural Relations who has spent 25 years aiding Somalis in refugee camps in Kenya and Somaliland, says that PTSD and other mental disorders may be feeding back into the cycle of violence. Those bearing psychological scars are often willing volunteers for extremist militias, he says, providing the cannon fodder for attacks. The problem is compounded by the fact that a whole generation of young people has known nothing but turmoil since 1991.

“I wish the Somali government understood the importance of this,” says Isoe. “The country cannot move forward, economically, politically, or even socially with such a large number of mentally ill patients. If nothing is done, security will remain a challenge.”
For his part, Habeb says he struggles to get attention from Maryan Qasim, the minister for human development and public services, whose portfolio covers health, education, youth, sports, women, and labor — or the global charities that have increased their presence in Mogadishu.

“International agencies are only interested in diarrhea, TB, HIV, and malaria,” he says, echoing a widely held view among mental health workers that infectious diseases secure a disproportionate amount of global health funding. While mental illness accounts for 14 percent of medical problems, it receives less than 1 percent of health spending in poor countries.

Dr. Zeinab Ahmead Noor, head of Somalia’s mental health unit, says officials support Habeb’s work by sourcing drugs through the WHO, though she admits that the health ministry is more concerned with re-opening Mogadishu’s Forlanini Hospital.

“We help him as much as we can but we are more focused on the opening of a public hospital,” she said. “There [are] many people who suffer from mental health. Every family has some problem, and, because of 20 years of lack of resources, there is a lot of suffering in the country.”

In his ward in Mogadishu, Habeb’s telephone rings throughout the small hours as new patients are admitted — some of them kicking, screaming, and violent. The morning brings a new arrival, the 28-year-old son of a parliamentarian, whose ankles and wrists were bound with television cable after he trashed the family home.

Habeb looks exhausted and stressed. His son, Mohamed Alrahman Ali, worries that his father is overworked, that his diabetes, weight loss, and quick temper are worsened by helping Somalia’s mentally ill. “I cry seven or eight times a day. I don’t have any support. I am alone,” says Habeb, his left leg jittering restlessly in a manner that resembles many of his patients.

There is debate over what proportion of Somalia’s population suffers from mental trauma. Many describe the WHO’s estimate of one-third as conservative. Some believe it is closer to two-thirds. For Habeb, the answer is simple. “All,” he says, not even bothering to exclude himself.

This article first appeared on Foreign Policy.