Nebraska school district helps refugee students with trauma

A new program launched in a Nebraska school district is helping refugee students deal with the trauma that prompted them to flee their home countries.

Lincoln Public Schools officials were motivated to step in after the 2014 massacre by the Islamic State group in Sinjar, Iraq, devastated members of the local Yazidi community, the Lincoln Journal Star reported. Hundreds of families from the religious minority in Iraq live in the Lincoln area.

"That's when the conversation really started to turn to, 'How can we help, how can we support students and families who have relatives living in this horrible situation?'" said Oscar Rios Pohirieth, a cultural specialist and coordinator for the district's bilingual liaison program. "Everyone is affected by it, no matter where they come from. Whether immigrant or refugee, they will be affected by trauma one way or another."

He noted that the number of immigrant and refugee students in Lincoln has increased by more than 50 percent over the past three years.

Under the program, interpreters work with therapists to get past language and cultural barriers, including any stigma about mental health. In many cultures, the concept of therapy is new and mental health services are defined only by medication or electric-shock therapy, said Megan Watson, a psychologist who works with immigrants and refugees.

"Little by little they are coming forward and saying, 'I do want to do this,'" Rios Pohirieth said. "We are seeing this play out in ways we didn't two-and-a-half years ago, and it is a beautiful thing."

Last school year, therapists served nearly 50 refugees from 14 different schools through the program. Another 24 students are on a waiting list.

The program is largely funded by federal grants, including funds earmarked for immigration education. Rios Pohirieth said reaching out to refugee students now will help them and the community.

"We are going to lose our kids to drugs, alcohol, suicide — any coping mechanism they can find on their own, without professional help," he said.


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star,