Firas Mahdi of IFACES

Firas is a case manager for Heartland Alliance Health’s International Family Adult and Child Enhancement Services (IFACES) program – which connects refugees and asylees with mental health services and their new communities. A former refugee himself, Firas believes in the transformative power of the IFACES program – and sees just how impactful mental healthcare can be for new Americans.

  1. What got you into this work?

I am a doctor in my home country. By trade, I am trained to help people heal. When I came to Chicago I wanted to continue helping people with my skills even though I can’t practice medicine for the time being.

  1. Why is this work important to the community? To the people we serve?

This is a very broad answer, but the importance of helping those who have been affected mentally and emotionally by their refugee experience cannot be understated. Their traumas have affected their ability to merge with their new communities – and ultimately to adjust to life in the US. We are helping them to lower their symptoms which helps ease the transition to become Americans.

  1. Was there a moment where you KNEW you were in a job that was right for you? Could you talk about that?

This work is similar in some ways to my old work as a doctor because I’m helping people, but in this job I get happiness when I’m successfully able to advocate for my participants. Much of my job has to do with helping my clients get what they need from a refugee perspective – so whether that’s healthcare, or benefits, or other forms of help, I am ready to be there.

  1. What is your favorite part of your job?

The best moments is when someone becomes a US citizen. I try to be there for the whole process, to support them in any way I can. To achieve this goal, and see how they are so happy, it’s the reason I am here today.

  1. How can others help your work?

This program provides such a unique service for this community – mental health services for refugees. Our participants come to us and find someone who knows their culture, can speak their language, and can provide mental health services. This is hard to find someone who can work as a cultural broker and get to know their family and their lives as well as trying to meet their needs.

Sayid’s Story

Sayid and Firas

Triggered from the traumas during his experiences in Syria and as a refugee of war, Sayid’s depression and anxiety came later in life. Sayid and his family had to flee the Syrian Civil War approximately five years ago. They ran from bombs, from soldiers, from food and water shortages – they ran from everything they once knew to find peace.

Sayid and his family had to endure life as refugees in Lebanon for several years before getting the call to come to America. With so few resources allotted to them, Sayid and his family had to spend more time surviving than finding ways to cope with their recent traumas.

“I couldn’t sleep, I was having regular nightmares. There was a constant fear for my family’s safety, and I felt I could never rest.”

Sayid was resettled in Chicago through Heartland Alliance, where he was provided access to housing, employment, and healthcare. When he explained his internal struggles with anxiety, Sayid was recommended to Heartland Alliance Health’s IFACES program – a clinical and case management program dedicated to helping refugees through mental health services.

Through the program, Sayid was introduced to his new case manager, Firas. Firas, himself a refugee from the Middle East, has been serving individuals struggling with their mental health for years. The two quickly made a connection, and Firas was able to link Sayid with a psychiatrist as well as a movement therapist.

“My doctors believe that my mental health and physical health conditions are connected. I’m very stiff now, so we work a lot on relaxation.”

On some days that work includes yoga, other days they focus on music therapy. No matter what vehicle Sayid and his therapist use, they are always talking, always working. On the case management side of the program, Sayid works hand in hand with Firas to continue building a life in Chicago. Sayid joins other IFACES participants on trips around the city, learning about new ways of life and culture.

Sayid believes that this sense of community has helped him find peace – and that his close relationship with Firas has given him the chance to trust again.

“I had to go to the emergency room just recently, and it could have been a very overwhelming experience. Firas came with me and stayed the entire time. It helps so much knowing there are people who care about us. Thankfully, I know I’m improving because of it.”

As time moves on and Chicago becomes home to Sayid and his family, the prospect of peace seems much more realistic. Sayid’s family is thriving in their new home, and Sayid – one day at a time, one session at a time – is confident in his path toward healing.

“My anxiety has shrunk so much. My treatment, along with the sense of safety my family and I have in our new home city, has given me another chance at life. Every day is a good day to see the therapist, and I’m lucky enough to have that opportunity.”

Amy Dix on Refugee Mental Health

Amy Dix believes in helping people heal through compassion and support. She supervises Heartland Alliance Health’s IFACES program – which connects refugees and asylees with mental health services and their new communities.

What got you into this work?

I chose social work and mental health because I was good at listening and seeing patterns and connections. I was an intern in FACES when I was in social work school, and was so excited to find it because I had always felt drawn to work with refugees. After graduation, I worked for a time at at RICS, Heartland’s refugee resettlement program, and ultimately back to IFACES.

Was there a moment where you KNEW you were in a job that was right for you?

I’ve always had the deepest respect for the staff and participants at FACES so it was very scary to manage them. I think some of that was the so-called “imposter syndrome,” but I still felt strongly I was here for a purpose that I believed in, which was helping people who had fled war and terror to heal and integrate.

After the election we were all really hurting, full of dread about what would happen, feeling betrayed. I remember I knew that day that my job was to create space for my team to process and be together. That is what really makes America great – we are so different but we are in this together.

What is your favorite part of your job?

The food, obviously, and my coworkers! It’s a bit like traveling, I get to learn about different cultures all the time. And of course, the best part is when people start to heal. It’s amazing to see someone really become who they can be, out from under the fear and depression.

How can others help your work? 

Give your support and encouragement to any non-profit professionals in your life! It can be a hard job, with a lot of intense emotions on and under the surface. Many helping professionals are good at helping but not so good at asking for support. Listen to them vent, show interest and appreciation. It means a lot and helps people to keep doing the work.

Learn more about IFACES here.

Finding Light Through The Dark

Mental health thrives in the darkness – our deepest fears, most powerful anxieties, proclivities for depression can easily take root and grow in silence. Stigma can easily precipitate the sense that mental health is something one must manage individually. At Heartland Alliance, we understand that oftentimes it takes the support of others to address mental health. Our trauma-informed care and strengths-based approach can help participants find the light through the dark.

For Elena, a mother of two and a participant of Heartland Alliance Health’s IFACES program, taking those first steps toward help were the most difficult.

“I used to draw when I was little. I loved to create beautiful images and depictions of places I wanted to go. But that stopped when the war started. I hadn’t opened up to anyone about how I felt about that, about what I’d gone through. Now, with the help of IFACES and my therapist, that is changing.”

They say that refugees experience three major traumas: the trauma of what had caused them to flee their homes, the trauma of living without an official nation, and lastly, the trauma of resettling into a foreign environment.

Elena, a refugee from Iraq, escaped the country at the height of the war. For eight years, she lived in a host country that did not recognize her refugee status – forcing her to endure the constant fear of sudden deportation. When she arrived in the U.S., rebuilding her life was difficult. The overwhelming changes and past traumas made it hard to step outside the house, let alone become part of a new community.

That all changed when Elena’s husband learned of Heartland Alliance Health’s IFACES program. The program provides comprehensive, community-based mental health services for refugees, asylees and their families suffering from trauma or emotional disorders. For years, the IFACES team has helped countless refugees rebuild their lives and establish a home in Chicago.

“My healing, my work toward accepting and opening up, it all started with my case manager Firas. He helped me get to the point where I could actually talk with a therapist.”

Firas quickly connected Elena with a therapist and signed her up for group outings with her fellow refugees. Getting to know the city with people just like her helped reduce the anxiety of being outside in strange land, and she was able to find the beauty in her new home city.

Through therapy, Elena began diving into the hard conversations that she had never been able to address. They talk about her traumas from back home, her eight years in Jordan, the difficulties of building a life and a family in a new country.

“It’s amazing how much ground we have covered. I never imagined myself exploring my feelings. Talking to my therapist is like talking to a mirror. My experiences with Firas and my therapist help me understand my new country and myself.”

Her therapist recommended she find new ways to express her thoughts and feelings, and Elena found the strength to once again pick up her pencils. Most of her art reflects places she’s read about or seen in books and magazines, or of places she remembers from her past. Most of her artwork depicts homes or places of security and safety.

“Therapy gives me the ability to dig deep into my spirit. My depression, my anxiety, my bad thoughts shut me up for so long. When I began my therapy, I found myself drawing. I dive into those thoughts and anxieties, and I put them to paper.”

Today, Elena finds herself in a much happier space. There is still much work to be done, but her outlook is much brighter. She envisions a bright future for her children and even sees brighter colors in her future works of art.

“If you have a gift – whatever it may be – use it to help express yourself. When I did this, the degree of my depression and anxiety improved so much. Explore what is in you.”

Learn more about IFACES here.