Media’s negative focus on Somali youth: what impact is it having on them?

by B. Heidi Ellis, PhD

Recently, there’s been much attention in the media about the Somali youth who have disappeared from Minneapolis and are believed to have been recruited into a terrorist organization based in Somalia, Al-Shabaab. The press has highlighted the potential national security threat posed by these youth joining this organization, which has known ties to Al-Qaeda. While I can’t speak to the level of risk posed by these youth, what I do know is this: For the rest of the Somali community, the media’s relentless focus on the negative is harmful.
Somalis have been coming to our country as refugees since 1991, when a brutal civil war broke out in Somalia. The civil war continues today, and Somalia has been called the ‘worst humanitarian crisis in the world.’ Youth coming to our country from Somalia often have witnessed or experienced atrocities, lost family members and grown up without consistent access to education or health care. Once they arrive in the Uninted States, they must face the challenges of acculturating to a world vastly different from their own.

As a child psychologist specializing in Somali youth, I have witnessed their struggles to overcome trauma, adjust to a new culture and find their place in our communities. The challenges are many.
In an effort to better understand how these different challenges effect the adjustment of Somali youth, we conducted a study of Somali adolescents living in New England. As we expected, trauma plays a major role in their adjustment. But although past trauma is important, what matters more is right here in our own town. Discrimination and rejection at school tell a bigger part of the story than all the previous trauma and loss.

A quick search in the major newspapers shows that the main news related to Somalia is of war, piracy and, now, potential terrorism threats. The more the media focuses on the negative, the more likely it is that Somali youth will experience discrimination. By focusing on the dangerous choices of a few youth, are we making it harder for the rest?

One antidote for youth being recruited into Al-Shabaab is to help them feel like they belong in our communities. In place of fear and suspicion, let’s build understanding. In place of alienation, let’s build connection.

Here at Children’s Hospital Boston, we have a partnership between community-based organizations, schools and mental health providers dedicated to building connection and understanding with Somali youth. This program, called Project SHIFA (Supporting the Health of Immigrant Families and Adolescents) is based in the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Boston and provides mental health prevention and intervention services to Somali youth and families. Our staff leads groups in the school that focus on helping youth navigate the stresses of acculturation and, for those with greater needs, we work intensively with families to decrease stressors and help them better manage emotions. We also work within the school setting to help foster a culture of support for these youth.

So is it working? Let me counter the bad news that’s been in the papers with some good news: Yes. After just six months in the program, youth are more connected to their family, school and communities and better adjusted psychologically. In short, our youth belong. If we can continue to build and support programs like this, we may both prevent youth from needing to look for connections with dangerous social groups like Al-Shabaab and nurture the vibrant Somali youth community that’s already here. And that’s good news for everyone.

B. Heidi Ellis, PhD, is an instructor in psychology and psychiatry at Children’s Hospital Boston/Harvard Medical School. She is also the Associate Director for the Children’s Hospital Center for Refugee Trauma and Resilience, a partner in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and the Director of Project SHIFA, a school-based mental health promotion program for Somali refugee youth funded through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Read a story about how a Children’s social worker helps Somalian refugees adjust to life in Boston.