Report Details Regarding Mental Health Problems Among Afghan Refugee Children at Chicago Shelter

Heartland Alliance denies there are problems, no translators

CHICAGO – A new report details mental health issues at a south-side shelter for Afghan refugee children.

Afghan children began arriving as refugees at the Heartland Alliance Shelter in Bronzeville, a former nursing home, in August – as the United States began evacuations as it pulled out of the country.

Propublica Reports a mental health crisis inside the building in the months that followed.

Propublica reporter Melissa Sanchez said over the past five weeks there had been dozens of police calls – three for suicide attempts or threats, five for beatings or assaults, and two for mental health problems.

“There are a bewildering number of incidents involving children with suicidal ideation or harming themselves, harming others,” she said. “Workers said to their managers, one after another, ‘I have never seen so much disorganization, chaos and stress.’

Danger, complicated by communication barriers.

“They have absolutely no one in this building who speaks Pashto or Dari, which are the main languages ​​spoken by the children,” Sanchez said. “So all of this stuff together was really amazing.”

Vanessa Igess, the program director of the Heartland Alliance, denies this claim.

“No, that’s not true,” she said. “We have over 30 different languages ​​spoken at any given time. “

The shelter is one of four in Chicago managed by the Heartland Alliance.

Igess said Heartland houses 78 Afghan children, mostly teenagers, at the four shelters. About 55 of them are on the Bronzeville site. They all had to leave behind families who made sacrifices for their safety.

“I have children that their parents threw them over the fences, or pushed them, or fought the Taliban to get them through the gate to get a seat on the plane,” Igess said.

She paints a picture of progress in the shelter – not chaos.

“We are working to help stabilize them and I think we will be good because even in this short time and the number of children we have welcomed into the program, we have seen improvements,” Igess said.

“They were faced with a really complicated situation, but at the end of the day the children are injured. The children are suffering. The kids are languishing in this place, ”Sanchez said. “And I think the American public should know that.”

Heartland Alliance released a statement to WGN News which said, in part:

Since the onset of the last Afghan humanitarian crisis in August, we have provided Afghan evacuees security and stability when they enter the United States through resettlement services including housing, public benefits, employment assistance. and education. We have sought and received tremendous support from the local Afghan community as we welcome these newcomers. We are deeply honored to support this community as they rebuild their lives, and their gratitude for our care has been heartwarming.

We met with city and state partners to remove significant systemic barriers to accessing psychiatric assessments for children requiring hospital care. We are in regular communication with local hospitals and clinicians to increase the limited supports available. At the same time, we hired a provider to start individual and group therapy for some of the young people. We also put our Afghan youth in touch with people from the Afghan community and offered in-person Jummah prayers, weekly mosque visits, and incorporated many cultural comforts like foods and activities that young people ask for.

The shelter is located in the Congressman Bobby Rush Quarter. WGN News has contacted its office for comment. A spokesperson said Rush’s office was ready to help and asked the Refugee Resettlement Office to help with translators.

The full statement is as follows:

I am horrified by recent reports of chaos and dysfunction at Heartland Shelter. These Afghan children have suffered unimaginable trauma, and the language barrier that hinders communication between them and Heartland staff only compounds this trauma and confusion.

My office has contacted Heartland and stands ready to help. In addition, I call on the Refugee Resettlement Office and Heartland to step up and increase their efforts to immediately get translators on site, provide the necessary support to staff and children, and ensure that these children receive the mental and psychiatric care they need. great need. Afghan refugees should never have received such a traumatic reception in our country. These kinds of unwelcoming circumstances must end abruptly.

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