Kitchener-Waterloo

Arabic counselling program to end after 2 successful years

An Arabic counselling service that served more than 200 refugees in its first two years will end on June 30 due to lack of funding.

Counselling agency unable to find funding for a third year, executive director says

Gazele Hanna holds a photo of her son, Montaser Anees, who died by suicide a little over a year after they immigrated to Canada as refugees. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

When Gazele Hanna and her son immigrated to Canada as refugees, she thought she had left the horrors of death behind her. 

Now, as she sits alone in her living room, she holds a photo of her son and cries.

Montaser Anees died by suicide a little more than a year after he and his mother settled in Waterloo region. 

"She blames herself," said Aleya Hassan, translating for Hanna, who only speaks Arabic. "She feels like she is guilty because she didn't take all the signs seriously."

Red flags

Before he died, Anees spoke often about a desire to kill himself. His family doctor suggested he go to the hospital, but Hanna said the doctor didn't make it clear that the situation was urgent. 

"Nobody told her this is a red flag," Hassan said. "She wishes someone told her this."

We think the journey getting here is about getting to safety, and I fear what people don't understand is that safety — emotional safety — doesn't just happen the day they set foot in Canada.- Leslie Josling, executive director, KW Counselling

Anees's death has become a marker in the tightly-knit refugee community — an example of what can go wrong and a reason for things to be done differently. 

In the year after he died, an Arabic counselling service run through K-W Counselling began to gain traction, attracting more than 200 clients.

But the counselling agency has recently announced that, in spite of its success, the program will end on June 30 due to lack of funding.

Helen Ala Rashi says she was shocked to hear that the Arabic counselling program was ending, given the great need for mental health services in the refugee community. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

The community reacts

"I was actually shocked," said Helen Ala Rashi, the co-founder of ShamRose, an organization that provides peer-support to Arabic-speaking newcomers. 

Shortly after the initial influx of Syrian refugees, Ala Rashi recognized the urgent need for mental and emotional supports.

We've worked [too] hard to get here and we've worked so hard to earn the community's trust to come and say, 'I'm sorry, but I need to leave you right now.'- Rasha Mardini, counsellor, KW Counselling

She said she called on the community to hire an Arabic speaking counsellor and when KW Counselling announced its program in July 2016, she was very happy. 

"We celebrated to have her," Ala Rashi said.

But now that the program is ending, she doesn't know what to say.

"I don't understand. I have no words to say about this."

Rasha Mardini and Aleya Hassan have worked hard over the past two years to build up the Arabic counselling program, which will end on June 30. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

240 people served in 2 years

Since it was launched, the Arabic counselling program has served 240 people, either through individual counselling sessions or through mental health workshops. 

Counsellor Rasha Mardini said newcomers were initially reluctant to use the service due to the stigma attached to mental illness and counselling in the Middle East, but that has changed in the last year. 

It's easy just to think about immediate needs when we think about settlement ... and there's this other piece of settling that we need to hold, and we need to know it's a longer term investment.- Leslie Josling, executive director, KW Counselling

"Once a person had the courage to share that they've met with me and that it was somewhat helpful and they felt OK, it wasn't scary, the word kind of spread," she said. 

That success makes it difficult for Mardini now because she has to tell her clients it's time to find a new counsellor. 

"We've worked [too] hard to get here and we've worked so hard to earn the community's trust to come and say, 'I'm sorry, but I need to leave you right now,'" she said.

Emotional safety takes time

KW Counselling has been financing the program, which costs about $90,000 a year, though a series of grants. 

The first year of funding came from the Immigration Partnership and the second year of funding, which is about to peter out, came from the KW Community Foundation. 

"This is often the story of initiatives — especially specialized initiatives — in the mental health sector," KW Counselling executive director Leslie Josling. "You can't find long-term sustainable funding for them and that's indeed what's happened here."

Josling has been working hard to find a generous donor for year three of the Arabic counselling program and said there are indications the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care may provide funding for programs like it in a few years, but there is no funding right now.

She finds it frustrating, given all the money and effort that went into bringing the refugees to Waterloo region in the first place. 

"It's easy just to think about immediate needs when we think about settlement — housing, schools, health care — and there's this other piece of settling that we need to hold, and we need to know it's a longer term investment than some of those immediate bits," she said.

"We think the journey getting here is about getting to safety, and I fear what people don't understand is that safety — emotional safety — doesn't just happen the day they set foot in Canada."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Melanie Ferrier is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in Kitchener, Ont. You can email her at melanie.ferrier@cbc.ca.

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