Helping Somali mothers in Minneapolis

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As a high school teacher in Kenya, Paul Orieny identified behavioral problems in children that he was sure stemmed from their home environments. He felt that counseling children without addressing issues at home, with parents and family, was only part of the solution. He also knew that as a teacher he was ill-equipped to help his students beyond their classroom needs. It was this feeling of hopelessness that propelled him towards studying marriage and family therapy when he emigrated to the United States. 

Now, Orieny is a psychotherapist at the Minneapolis-based Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) where he counsels families who have sought refuge in the United States following traumatic experiences in their countries of birth. The patients he now works with have suffered more trauma than the Kenyan high school children who first inspired him to pursue therapy. 

Working at CVT’s Parenting Through Change (PTC), Orieny is fulfilling his desire to reach out to kids by teaching their parents effective parenting. “In schools, when kids have psychosocial struggles, they are sent to therapy,” he said, “but many times their parents’ involvement is only secondary. The best place to begin is with the parents.” 

PTC is a parenting intervention program aimed at “preventing and reducing behavioral and emotional problems in children of parents going through transitions such as divorce and immigration.” Now in its third year, PTC is a partnership with the University of Minnesota’s Ambit Network run by Dr. Abigail Gewirtz. PTC was developed in Oregon by Marion Forgatch and, according to Orieny, has been modified to meet cultural needs of the different immigrant communities he works with. 

In an op-Ed in the Star Tribune, Orieny describes PTC:

“To empower them, we focus on five core positive parenting practices that promote healthy child development: skill encouragement, limit-setting, monitoring, interpersonal problem-solving and positive development.” 

As Orieny explains, the parents he works with, mostly mothers, are experiencing more than simple immigration. His current class mostly comprises Somali immigrant mothers.

“Many of them are making a leap, not just a move to a new country, but a leap to modernization, from villages, refugee camps to a fast paced highly industrialized Minneapolis.”

In a case of true cultural misplacement, Orieny describes how difficult it was for many of the women in his class to understand disciplining their children using time outs or privilege removal.

“We have to teach them that these are tools to keep the child in check,” he said, “and that their children will still love them.”

For older children, the program teaches parents to engage their children in decision-making. 

As part of the program, the mothers are given assignments that are practical applications of their lessons. For example, a Somali woman in the program missed having family outings, an activity she enjoyed with her children and extended family in Somalia. Her assignment then was to find an activity. With her family, she decided on eating out. However, her family could not settle on whether they should go out for dinner or lunch. A simple decision for many people, but one wrought with emotional ramifications for the mother. She was hesitant to go out in the evening because she remembered late night gunshots in Somalia. Her son, on the other hand, wanted to go out in the evenings and spend time on the beach reminiscent of a safer and happier time in Somalia.

Even with its challenges, the program has had relative success, according to Orieny. “The group has gone quite well and we hear very good feedback from the participants,” he said. “It is also true, however, that there are many barriers like trauma, lack of resources and huge cultural differences that make the intervention difficult to implement.”