In conversation with Yohannes Drar, Social Worker

Yohaness Drar

Yohaness Drar

Could you tell me about your childhood? Where were you born? Is there anything about your childhood that stands out for you? Helped form who you are today? Your parents, friends, school?

I was born and raised in Keren, Eritrea. My parents are my great mentors, who gave me love, care, and strong family values. During my childhood and youth years, Eritrea was under the rule of Ethiopia. The Eritreans were struggling for their independence and self-determination. During my formative years I was influenced by strong nationalism and revolutionary ideas.

When did you come to Canada, what made you decide on Canada and Ottawa?

In my high school years in Eritrea I was a student activist and later I joined the Eritrean armed struggle. In 1981 I left Eritrea and became a refugee in neighboring Sudan. I lived in the capital city of Sudan, Khartoum. At that time I was employed at the USA refugee settlement program at the US Embassy as an interpreter and translator for both Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees who were asking to resettle in the US. There was a Canadian who was working with NGO’s and he was a friend of mine. He influenced and advised me to settle in Canada. I had the choice to settle to in the USA, but because of him I decided to go to Canada. I came to Ottawa in 1984, with my sister and her four children. Her husband and other family members also joined us. I still continue to assist refugees from Eritrea and other countries to settle in Canada.

What is your educational background?

In Eritrea I have completed my high school, but interrupted my schooling due to the revolution. I had a dream to attain higher education and I have completed both a Bachelors and Master degrees in Social Work at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

Can you describe your job as a Social Worker? What type of patients do you see?

As a social worker I work with individuals, families, and communities on the treatment of mental illness. I do teaching, individual and family counselling, education, family therapy, advocate for culturally sensitive interventions at the hospital, consult with other mental health professionals, and work with community agencies. I work with people with severe mental illness, such as, schizophrenia, additions, bi-polar disorder, major depression, and trauma/PTSD. I also do outreach community work educating the Ethiopian, Eritrean, African, and black communities by writing articles on mental illness in different languages, radio talk shows, and seminars.

From your experience, are people of African descent more at risk of mental illness than the general population? Or are we more prone to specific types of mental illness? If so, what are those and what kind of treatment and support are available to such patients?

Generally, mental illness can impact anyone and people from African or minority cultures tend to not be using the health care services properly. As a result, tend to be admitted during a crisis period, often involuntarily. This is due to the stigma and the denial of mental illness in these communities. Mental illness is seen in these communities as a curse, God given, spiritual phenomena, sprit possession, etc. They tend not to view it as a bio-psychosocial phenomenon. As a former refugee, many people who come to Canada might have been exposed to war, torture, persecution, imprisonment, and other traumas. They could have experienced pre-migration, migration, and post-migration stressors. This could affect their settlement in Canada and their emotional well-being. During their settlement period, they could have psychosocial problems, such as, finding employment, housing, education, schooling for their children, isolation, racism, and social role transitions. These stressors if not properly managed and treated could result in mental illnesses and emotional problems.

Regarding specific mental illnesses, Africa as we know is the second largest continent with over one billion people and 54 countries. Africans in Canada settled as students, immigrants, refugees, and through the family reunification process. As a result, mental illnesses differ from individuals, families, and communities. For example, the Horn of Africa refugees have seen conflicts, violence, and killings. Many of these countries have civil wars, dictatorial regimes, ethnic strife; they could also be exposed to other traumas. There are many types of mental illnesses with these refugees, such as, PTSD, addictions, psychosis, paranoia, depression, etc.

As stated, the stigma and denial of mental illness tends to be higher in these communities. Many of these communities have lived in Canada for more than 4 decades. Knowledge of the mental health system is important for help coping and adapting to life’s problems. Signs and symptoms of mental illness, if early detected, could be treated properly with counseling, medication, social supports, and psychotherapy. What I advise to our communities is to use the health care system early on in their emotional struggles through consulting their family physician, community health care centers, counsellors, or by educating ourselves through seminar, readings, and workshops.

 There a significant stigma attached to mental illness and many people are reluctant to seek treatment as a result. What advice would you give to the families and friends of people suffering from mental illness?

Like I said in the last question, education and support is important. I call all community leaders, religious leaders, and professionals from these communities to give awareness, education, and guidance to their own communities about mental illness. Our old beliefs regarding mental illness has to change, and we are lucky enough to live in Canada were individuals with mental illness have the same right and privilege as everyone else. With proper treatment they can recover and pursue a happy life.

You are one of a rather small number of Eritrean immigrants living in the national capital region. Do you associate with other Eritrean nationals? Do you have a formal community organization? Does your community engage in any cultural or social activities to promote and maintain your ties with the home country?

I am an active member of the Eritrean community, not only in Canada, but also in the Diaspora. I have been a community activist and organizer, and I am also one of the founders of many active Eritrean groups. My role has been to educate the community on mental illness via newspapers, radio talk shows, and seminars. In Ottawa, Eritreans are very close due to our history of struggle. For example, when members of the community die in Ottawa, members gather together to grieve and help the family financially and emotionally.

There are people in our community who feel that there is a big divide between black francophone and Anglophone people on the one hand. On the other hand, they feel that there is also a big divide between people from the Caribbean and those from continental Africa. Do you agree with these views? If so, how can they be resolved so there can be more collaboration between the different segments of Ottawa’s Black community?

Unfortunately, in Canada we tend to divide people according to their skin colour. Canada is a bi-lingual country with the French and English ethnic groups. The visible minorities in Canada are more than 18% of our population. Being black is a diverse community and it is expected that due to the social and political background each of these communities have their own interests and needs. However, the black Canadians may have common interests, issues, and needs. To resolve such issues there have been several efforts to address needs for health, employment, education, etc. Mental health and mental illness should be addressed by inviting our health care professionals in our communities to educate. I believe our mental health professionals from all these communities can come together to address this issue.

Eritrea appears to have changed a lot since the time when the country was a part of Ethiopia. There are news stories of political repression, causing many young people to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life. Have you or your family been affected by this apparently unending turmoil? Is there a resolution in sight?

Ethiopia and Eritrea have old historical ties, but during the scramble for Africa, Eritrea was colonized by Italians and then after the Second World War came under the British administration. The United Nations in 1950 decided that Eritrea became a federal state under the Empire of Ethiopia. In 1962, Ethiopia abrogated the Federal Act and forcibly annexed Eritrea. Then the Eritreans started armed struggle based on a Marxist revolution. After 30 years war of liberation Eritrea became independent in 1991. Unfortunately, the liberation front leader became authoritarian and many Eritreans are again leaving the country in large numbers. We hear tragic stories, like many Eritreans, perishing in the Mediterranean Sea trying to ask for refugee status in Europe. Many of us in the Eritrean diaspora have been affected by these tragic events. Our hope and dreams were to return from exile to Eritrea. Fortunately, we have now a second home in Canada. Eritreans are resilient and stoic people who never lose hope. We dream one day that the rule of law will prevail in Eritrea and our people will have a democratic and peaceful nation.

Do you have any hobbies or pastimes? What has been your biggest achievement and what was your biggest challenge? In your work, family life, social life, other?

My biggest pastimes are reading, assisting family members, and serving the community. My biggest achievement is completing my education and helping my community with that knowledge. My dream is to one day assist in opening a center of treatment from refugee’s mental health here in Ottawa. The biggest challenge is how to address and educate our communities to utilize the mental health system in Ottawa and in Canada.

Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?

To the readers of Black Ottawa Scene, I would like that we use the website as a medium of communicate to address our challenges and opportunities. I greatly thank you, Goodwin, for inviting me to give my views on this important issue. Finally, I would like to have the Black Ottawa Scene to be published in print, so that many of our Black community and the public could read the newspaper.

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  1. Stefanos Temolso May 10, 2017 at 8:19 am - Reply

    A very interesting and constructive interview. I am sure many youngsters will learn a lot from the experience of Ferdinand. I wish him all the best.

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