Social work professor Patricia Shannon and clinic founder Yussuf Shafie, M.S.W. '14, are driven to improve refugee mental health.Social work professor Patricia Shannon and clinic founder Yussuf Shafie, M.S.W. '14, are driven to improve refugee mental health.

Places for healing

Meeting the needs of refugee trauma survivors

Building a better world
This is one of three stories in our coverage of the School of Social Work’s centennial. Read an overview of the school’s history and find related stories here.

It was 2001, and Yussuf Shafie was 12 years old. He had just arrived in Minnesota from Kenya with his family after fleeing war in Somalia. Already he had noticed the profession called social work. As he witnessed the difficulties of so many others who had escaped war and famine, their new lives filled with jarring contrasts, he also observed those in critical positions to help them.

At the time, Patricia Shannon had begun what would become a decade as a psychotherapist and then a trainer at Minnesota’s Center for Victims of Torture. She worked with people from Somalia and other countries around the world who had suffered unspeakable cruelty and were struggling to put their lives back together.

Eleven years later, Shafie and Shannon met in a classroom at the U. Shafie had worked his way through high school, community college, and Metropolitan State University to earn his bachelor’s degree. Shannon had joined the School of Social Work faculty to help develop a clinical mental health concentration in the master of social work (M.S.W.) program and to research such things as a multicultural screening measure for mental health—exactly what Shafie was looking for.

In Peters Hall, Shafie took a core class on concepts in clinical social work practice with Shannon, then another on assessment and treatment of trauma. He learned about topics like cross-cultural assessment and evidence-based interventions for refugee trauma survivors—not only practice but theories and research on what works and why.

A group of refugees walk with their belongings. Refugees are forced to flee their home countries because of persecution, war, or violence. Somalia was home to large numbers arriving in Minnesota in recent years, many after stays in refugee camps in Kenya.
Refugees are forced to flee their home countries because of persecution, war, or violence. Somalia was home to large numbers arriving in Minnesota in recent years, many after stays in refugee camps in Kenya. Photo by Osman Sagirli, IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation.

“Patty Shannon really knew what she was talking about,” says Shafie. “She was so knowledgeable about mental health and trauma-informed care, and she engaged the students in a way that no one was ever bored. She was also the easiest person to talk to, in and outside of class.”

Students like Shafie are part of the next generation of professionals that Shannon is driven to train, passing on what she has learned and preparing them for not only compassionate clinical care but also contributing to the research that will make it better.

When Shafie shared his dream of opening a clinic, Shannon encouraged him. She knew how long such a dream could take to achieve and how hard it could be.

Unlinking the chains

In 2016, just two years after Shafie finished his M.S.W., Shafie and Shannon found themselves sitting side by side among national speakers at a Twin Cities conference, Unlinking the Chains: Making Global Mental Health a Priority. The conference title was a reference to the fact that, in Somalia, people with mental illness are still sometimes kept in chains.

Shafie and Shannon had been invited to speak on a panel about Somali mental health, Shannon as a research expert and Shafie as the founder and executive director of a new, first-of-its-kind clinic, Alliance Wellness Center in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Yussuf Shafie
Yussuf Shafie

“It was amazing to be on that panel with Patty Shannon,” says Shafie. “And when I shared with her that I had done it—I had opened the clinic—she was telling everybody, ‘This was my student!’”

The clinic is an addiction treatment center that offers multicultural services delivered by a multicultural team. It was born out of Shafie’s response to the suffering of those with mental illness and addiction, problems long stigmatized in the Somali community. He had known of many who turned to alcohol and drugs to deal with the stresses of all they’d been through as well as adjustments in the United States.

He did it by building alliances within and across communities, and he raised funds by opening a restaurant with his sister.

“Since I was a little kid I wanted to do this—to be in social work and provide service,” says Shafie. “It’s more than me—it’s about the services that are needed. With chemical dependency, it’s where people turn when they can’t cope. So how can we help?”

Minnesota for human rights

Social work grew as a profession in settlement houses that served waves of immigrants and refugees to U.S. cities and communities in the decades from 1880 to 1920.

“Minnesota has been a human rights leader—it’s been refugee friendly,” says Shannon. “Minnesotans have recognized that the migrants into our state enrich us.”

In the 1970s, a new wave of immigrants and refugees began to arrive from Southeast Asia in the wake of war. A surge from eastern Europe followed the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Patricia Shannon
Patricia Shannon

The Center for Victims of Torture opened in Minnesota in the 1980s, the second such center in the world. Shannon joined the staff in 1999 following an influx of newcomers fleeing the 1990s wars in Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Bosnia. She had just completed a postdoctoral fellowship in psychotherapy research and trauma at the University of Michigan.

“The center expanded my awareness of trauma to global politics and what international populations are bringing to Minnesota,” Shannon says. “I also realized there are so many more survivors in the community than will ever use a specialized center like that.

“I thought, ‘We screen people arriving in the United States very successfully for infectious disease—so why not screen for mental health?’”

Shannon started working on culturally derived measures in 2009—piloting, testing, and analyzing what would lead to developing a pilot state screen, all in conversation with the department of health over a two-year period. It required learning how cultural groups talk about mental health and how to make a successful referral.

Learning together

In the same year Shannon started the project, she also arrived in the School of Social Work, joining forces with others on the faculty who work with immigrant populations (see box below). And she joined forces with students.

“It’s stimulating to meet students in my classes who challenge existing paradigms about how we understand mental health and what to do about it—they are very good at pointing out what is outdated,” says Shannon. “They will become our doctors and professionals of the future . . . probably within one generation.”

Yussuf Shafie is one of them.

With the tremendous diversity in the communities served, Shannon stresses the importance of academic and health professionals working together.

“That has been our goal,” Shannon says. “We’re only at the beginning of learning and understanding.”

A commitment to serving immigrants and refugees

When social work professor David Hollister was recruited to interview hundreds of low-income people living in the Twin Cities nearly 20 years ago, he was struck by the needs of those recently arrived from Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.

David Hollister
David Hollister

“It made me ask, ‘What do we have in our curriculum to deal with the needs of immigrants?” he remembers. There was a gap. Hollister proposed a course, Working with Immigrant Populations, first offered in 2003. Every spring he co-taught it with a doctoral student—either an immigrant or one whose work focused on immigrants—until his retirement. The course continues today. Hollister also led teams of grad students and colleagues studying housing and homelessness among immigrants and refugees, sharing expertise with colleagues around the world.

Liz Lightfoot
Liz Lightfoot

Professor Liz Lightfoot, whose interest in international social work led her to a Fulbright year in Namibia, has worked on several community-based projects related to refugee health. She’s involved in a partnership with several community groups interested in developing asset-based approaches to preventative health among refugees and immigrants, especially those from East Africa.

Hee Yun Lee

Professor Hee Yun Lee is a behavioral health scientist who specializes in work with underserved groups, including immigrant and refugee communities. She has worked on such projects as breast-cancer prevention among Asian American women, removing cultural barriers to getting preventative care. With a research grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she’s been part of a team designing an app tailored to Hmong youth age 11–17 and their parents that raise completion rates for the HPV vaccine series.

Learn more about associate professor Patricia Shannon, the School of Social Work, and Alliance Wellness Center.


This is one of three stories in our coverage of the 100th anniversary of social work at the University of Minnesota in 2017. Read the overview and two more features.

Building a better world—Social work celebrates a century

Fully flourishing—In the youth studies program, the future is now

Vital years—A focus on strengths in aging

Story by Gayla Marty | Photos of Shannon and Shafie by Greg Helgeson; other faculty courtesy School of Social Work | Fall 2017