Creatively Supporting the Arab American Community in Brooklyn

Introduction and Background

The September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center challenged PSI ’s staff to aid in addressing the trauma experienced by many New Yorkers. In addition to working directly with individuals and families through our Wall Street and other locations, PSI reached out with support services to local Arab Americans – a group that was deeply impacted and that has increasingly become the target of harassment, hate crimes, and discrimination in the New York area and across the country.

In 2004, a grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) enabled PSI to launch a unique outreach program to the Arab community in Brooklyn. Working directly community-based organizations (CBOs) and creating a team that included an Arabic-speaking psychologist, PSI designed a model for working with this community in a culturally sensitive manner.

It became apparent that due to cultural and language barriers and increased isolation resulting from post-9/11 anti-Arab sentiment, many Arab Americans were not seeking out counseling or support, outside their local community. Through personal contacts, PSI ’s team established relationships of trust with several neighborhood Arab American organizations in Brooklyn. By integrating support services into the on-going programming of community centers, PSI developed a highly effective approach for reaching this isolated and underserved population – in particular its women and children.

The Intense Pressures on Arab Americans and Need for Community-Based Support Services

Brooklyn, New York is home to one of country’s largest concentrations of Arab Americans in the United States. Arab Americans come from diverse countries and cultures, ranging from the Middle East and Gulf Region to Northern Africa and may be of any religion, though the majority of those served by PSI have been Muslim.

The events of September 11, 2001 touched off a wave of unprecedented anti-Arab sentiment across the country, including New York City. Even long-term, legal residents suffered the backlash of fear, prejudice, harassment, and immigration crackdowns. New immigrants found it increasingly difficult to access services, secure their status and feel welcomed and at ease in America. To compound these stresses, some Arabs arriving in the United States come from countries or circumstances where they may have suffered violence, loss, and other hardships, and thus were already experiencing varying degrees of post-traumatic stress.

Cultural and language barriers frequently prevent Arab Americans from seeking assistance to cope with these and other stresses. Without adequate support, many Arab immigrants (both individuals and families) find themselves in crisis, coping with feelings of fear, loss, and isolation and suffering from the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of intense and on-going stress. These include chronic physical symptoms and health conditions, increased depression and anxiety, and diminished sense of efficacy and self-esteem.

Women in particular report difficulty adjusting to changes in culture, social norms, their inability to find work, language barriers, and child-rearing differences, as well as misconceptions and prejudice about their religion and appearance. Contrary to common perceptions in America, many women had enjoyed great responsibility and independence in their home countries. Many report having been educated and having professional jobs, and subsequently finding themselves unable to work, and experience feeling restricted in their ability move freely about the city in New York. Language barriers exacerbate their sense of isolation, and they express eagerness to learn English. Many also feel embarrassed that their young children, who are able to learn English more quickly than they do, must help them find their way around, and even to communicate with various authorities.

Many families struggle with having family members forced to live separately—with children, parents, and other relatives remaining in their country of origin due to limited resources, immigration restrictions or even deportation. Families arrive here with great hope and commitment to life in the United States, but also grief and loss and fear for their homeland and loved ones lost or left behind, and some disillusionment at the sometimes overwhelming challenges they feel as they adjust.

Creative Programs

PSI held a series of meetings in 2003/2004 with members of community-based organizations and leaders in the Arab community in the New York area to assess the need for services and the best way to deliver such assistance. Through these meetings, PSI determined that the best approach would be to bring the services to the communities and to begin with:

  • group support sessions and workshops for women;
  • creative sessions for children and youth focused on self-expression, culture, and self-esteem;
  • building the capacity of staff of these community-based organizations to better cope with their own stressors and those of their clients.

PSI began a pilot program in January 2004 with three community-based organization partners:

  • Arab American Association of New York: a multi-service center in Bay Ridge Brooklyn with substantial community outreach and involvement;
  • Arab American Family Support Center: a large 10 year-old multi-service center in downtown Brooklyn; and
  • Council for People (formerly Pakistan ) Organization (COPO): an interfaith grassroots support center on Coney Island Avenue serving immigrants from Pakistan , South Asia , and other countries.

PSI staff member Julia Kristeller, a counselor with a strong background in creative arts therapies and Interfaith Minister who lives in Brooklyn and has had previous experience with an Arab and Muslim populations, has developed an array of services in partnership with consultant Dr. Souha Nikowitz an Arabic-speaking clinical psychologist. These include:

  • Women’s Support Groups: enabling women to come together to share their stories, talk about stresses in their lives, and develop coping skills in a safe, supportive environment. The groups started with a handful of women and have expanded to groups of 15 – 20. These groups have been very well received, and have included such topics as: Coping With Stress and Anxiety, Challenges with Children, Self-care, Grief and Loss, and Disabilities and Care-taking. Ms. Kristeller provided special sessions including psycho-education and simple exercises for relaxation, creative expression, self-care, and coping with stress, pain, fear, and loss from a mind, body, and spirit perspective.

This psycho-educational, psycho-social, and psycho-spiritual support in a safe group setting has proved invaluable for the Arab women, helping them to not only better understand their personal challenges, but also giving them some basic tools for self-care, and a venue to share and get support from one another. This has helped counteract a sense of isolation or disempowerment so often felt by the women when coping with their myriad challenges.

PSI counselors hear Arab American women voice sadness that they feel misunderstood and disconnected– that most Americans do not know or understand who they really are. Muslim women also experience their faith and their garments being falsely perceived and represented. They are most grateful for any support they receive and eager to support one another, to form new relationships, to raise their families in a positive environment, and to share the vital energy, hope, spirit, love, and faith they bring to this country.

It has proven to be especially successful to hold support sessions for women immediately following ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, which are very popular. There are some women who might not come out on their own for personal help from a support group. Also counseling or therapy, particularly mental health services carry a cultural stigma, so a support group, or “Women’s Chat Group” as they are sometimes called, feels safer. In some cases, as a result of their participation in the support groups, individuals have approached Dr. Nikowitz for one-on-one counseling, or have been referred to other needed services.

Funded by a small grant by a local family foundation these groups have continued to run successfully through 2009 at the Arab American Association, and have served scores of residents and new immigrants. They have recently spawned a creative project called Women of Purpose and Peace: Uniting Hands, Hearts, Mind, and Spirit where the women do creative artistic projects together that reflect their spirit and sense of self.

  • Creativity for Children and Youth: offering children ages 4 – 14 years old after-school and summer creative arts programming to support self-esteem, communication skills, and cultural identity and to help them cope with stresses at home and school. Many sibling groups and parents have also joined these sessions so PSI counselors are able to connect with whole families. Sessions focus on expression of feelings, written and visual journaling skills, poetry writing, collage, mask-making and self-portraits, group murals, and other creative activities.

Children are hungry for individual attention and eager to express their ideas, emotions and creativity. The creative process and products help build their confidence, capacity to share and work together, and their sense of pride in themselves and their community and culture.

Over the summer of 2007 children in the Arab American Association of NY each created a drawing about what the organization and summer camp meant to them. These were transformed into a large mural designed and painted by the children and displayed at their annual fundraiser and in the AAANY brochure, giving the children great pride. Children also made drawings of their dreams for the future, as well as self-portraits. Children, staff, and family members at COPO designed individual marble tiles to make a community mosaic.

  • Staff and volunteer support: PSI trainings provides staff of organizations serving Arab Americans with basic awareness of emotional and psychological issues in clients, as well as training in professional self-care, boundaries, and issues of teamwork and communication. Staff and volunteer support take the form of workshops, support groups, educational programs, staff retreats, and management and team conflict resolution, led by various members of PSI’s staff.

Program Staffing

PSI is made up of a highly qualified professional group of psychologists, clinical social workers, pastoral counselors, therapists, educators, and consultants. The staff member principally responsible for the development and implementation of the community outreach to Arab in Brooklyn is Julia Kristeller, MEd, in partnership with Arabic speaking consultant and clinical psychologist Souha Frewat-Nikowitz, Ph.D Working as a team for the past three years they have developed a strong partnership, trusted by their clients. Their ability to communicate through translation and body language has helped cross language and cultural barriers, and served as a model for participants. Other PSI staff members have also participated in programming, particularly during staff support sessions.

Ongoing and Future Initiatives

These include:

Support for Women

  • Ongoing Women’s Support Group
  • Special programs on domestic violence, trauma, stress, and other topics
  • Women’s Creative Art and Self-Expression Group

Children and Youth Creative Arts Program

  • After-school creative arts sessions
  • Development of on-site creative arts studio for children and youth
  • Assistance with support groups for teen and young girls
  • Summer arts project
  • Special community projects

Training and Support for Professionals/Volunteers

  • Psycho-educational trainings for those working with Arab population
  • Creative caring for caregivers

Community Events

  • Participation in health fairs
  • Development and participation in community events

Conclusion

The Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute ( PSI ) has developed a powerful model program for bringing psycho-social, psycho-educational, and psycho-spiritual support services to an immigrant group that has been woefully underserved, and has demonstrated increased need in recent years. We see the potential for this community-based approach to lead to the development of such outreach efforts to other groups in need where language, culture and resources may present barriers to obtaining support services. PSI ’s outreach efforts are also creating a lasting impact in such communities by building the capacity of staff and volunteers on the grassroots level to better cope with client trauma and stress, engage in more effective teamwork, and improve self-care.

PSI hopes to continue expand these important services as well as to document and disseminate this work, so that their families in these communities may continue to thrive and experience well-being, as they endeavor to participate in and contribute to life in their communities, our city, and our country.

Through its Brooklyn outreach initiative, PSI is not only helping families to cope with their challenges and contribute to others through opportunities share their stories, reduce their stress, and receive support, but is also helping to bring healing to their communities and to our city.

Biographies of Key Personnel

Julia Kristeller holds a Master’s in Creative Arts in Learning, and is an ordained Interfaith Minister with a strong background in the Creative Art Therapies. She has over 30 years experience in creative arts, education, professional development, counseling, spiritual leadership, and community outreach. Julia has served as a consultant for Sesame Workshop, Trinity Church and Preschool, UNICEF, Cross-Cultural International Institute, and JMH Communications. She has both undergraduate and graduate teaching experience in child development, art and expressive therapy, creative curriculum, and program planning and has presented at conferences nationally and internationally. She worked at the School of Visual Arts, Art Therapy Department, creating innovative special projects throughout the city as well as helping to launch their Masters program, and has worked therapeutically with patients, staff and families using the creative arts in hospice and hospitals. Julia has also been a director of programs for parents and children, and is a former Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic’s Early Childhood professional and parenting magazines and books. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Society for the Arts and Healthcare and the North Brooklyn YMCA and was an Elder at the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn. She is currently on staff at the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute and serves an Associate Pastor for Care and Education at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew and as a consultant for Healthy Families Brooklyn. She was honored in 2007 by the Arab American Association of New York for her Community Outreach.

Souha Frewat-Nikowitz is a clinical psychologist living and working in New York City . She has an M.A. in psychology from New York University and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from The New School. She has been working with the Arab community on mental health issues since her graduation in the year 2000, first as a psychologist at the Arab American Family Support Center in Brooklyn, then as one of the people who helped launch a mental health initiative post-9/11 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, together with the Arab American Association of New York, Salam Lutheran Church and Lutheran Medical Center, and later with Tamkeen, another community-based organization which specializes in services for victims of domestic violence. She has volunteered for Doctors of the World in the assessment and treatment of survivors of torture and other human rights abuses. She is on the board of several Arab community based organizations and recently presented her work at Columbia School of Social Work, and was honored as one of Brooklyn’s 30 Extraordinary Women by the District Attorney’s Office. She has been active in her private practice since 2001, both in Manhattan and in Brooklyn. Some of her specialties include treating post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders.

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