Hometown: Nairobi, Kenya
Research interests: Migration, refugee policy, the environment, and women
Q: You were a clinical psychologist prior to beginning the Master of Global Affairs program. What was your path to Notre Dame?
A: I went into clinical psychology because I saw how mental health issues were affecting my community. I’m Kenyan, but my ethnicity is Somali. So I grew up around Somali refugees—Kenya took the biggest number of refugees from the civil war in Somalia—and I got to see how my peers relied on the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) or IOM (International Organization for Migration) to be sponsored to go to Europe or America. By the time I was in high school, most of my childhood friends were resettled. The ones who couldn’t be resettled didn’t have the right documents—even though the Kenyan government allowed them to seek asylum, it never recognized them as residents or citizens. But they still wanted to make a life for themselves, so they started taking the illegal route to Europe.
Becoming interested in these issues of identity, I decided to pursue a degree in psychology. Once I started working professionally with a nongovernmental organization supporting the Somali Parliament, I got to see how the trauma from the civil war of the past three decades had manifested. They were really detached from their emotions and that really affected how they led the country. That’s when I pursued a master’s in clinical psychology.
After that, I worked with another nongovernmental organization that specialized in trauma healing through community dialogue and awareness of what trauma looks like. Part of my job was to assess the participants of the organization’s training program. I would assess them for PTSD prior to joining the program and once they went through the training. I saw in the post-assessment that nothing really changed. They still had the same symptoms. I realized I was talking to people about breathing exercises, about reaching out to others, but the root causes of their mental health issues were still systemic. I realized I had to advocate for policies that addressed the root causes instead of the symptoms. That’s why I applied to the Keough School’s Master of Global Affairs program with a concentration in international peace studies: to see how peacebuilding policies and other issues such as mental health are linked.
Q: Do you have a favorite professor or class?
A: Yes, I have so many. From my first year, it’s definitely Professor Clemens Sedmak. He reinforced how in any profession, in peacebuilding or in sustainable development, we should always think of integral human development: how are we approaching a person as a human being rather than as a project? Also, Professor George Lopez: I appreciated his practical experience. He encouraged us to have a moral compass and to do the right thing in any position we have. We cannot be led by our title or our salary; we always have to think bigger.
This semester, I learned a lot from Forced Migration, taught by Professor Erin Corcoran, because it addresses all the issues I’ve seen with refugees, and also my environmental policy class with Professor Ellis Adams. I’m learning so much—it’s an area I haven’t been familiar with.
Q: As a psychologist, you were able to gain a professional perspective on trauma. How has your view on trauma evolved over time?
A: My view of trauma was influenced by my Strategic Peacebuilding class with Professor David Hooker, who specializes in trauma. He told us that we can’t address trauma with a top-down process. Before we talk about trauma on the national or international level, we have to address it on the local level, where people can sit together in their own community and gain insight. Give them space where they can process it; that way they can address the root causes—either structural or cultural. Then they can be involved in other agencies at the middle and national level. Peacebuilding and trauma healing should always start at the community level. Always.
Q: A lot of your professional motivation seems to come from your upbringing. Are there any memories or experiences you hold onto that drive you to keep going?
A: My grandmother is Somali-Somali, so she doesn’t have the documents. If my mom was born in Somalia and we never had the documents, I would have been born in Somalia as well. I would have gone through what my childhood friends or my neighbors were going through. So I always think: I had the luck of being born in Kenya and having a birth certificate.
Once the British left, the borders were divided up. The part of Kenya that I was born in originally belonged to Somalia, so I was lucky enough to live by the border. It’s just by destiny or by God’s fate that I was born in Kenya, and I had those documents. I always look at it from that perspective. It could have been me. If it had, I would wish that somebody was doing something to help me in any way they could.
Q: In addition to your work in psychology, you have worked as a consultant with the Green String Network and the Somali government through the National Democratic Institute. So you have seen many different approaches—governmental, economic, personal—to peacebuilding. What part does policy play in responding to mental illness among migrants and refugees?
A: Policy influences a lot. It enforces actions that can protect refugees in many different ways. For example, in Kenya, the people I grew up with were either children when they came to Kenya or were born in the camps. If the 1951 UN Refugee Convention was enforced, I think it would have stopped all these root causes of the trauma. If people had protections in terms of institutions or services, like a right to go into the hospital or to go to school, these things would protect them from underlying issues that can lead to mental health issues.
Most of the people I grew up with had anxiety or depression from being arrested by the police, from wondering what their life would be like if they had the documents to survive day to day, or from a loss of identity. They questioned whether they were Somali or Somali-Kenyan because they were born in Kenya? If Kenya, as a signatory to the UN Convention—accepting so much money from the UNHCR—recognized that these people who came into their country were asylum-seekers and utilized the money to allow them to go to school, to look for a job, to get the right documents . . . all of this, I think, might have been avoided.
Q: As you have studied peacebuilding, are there people whose experience you were able to learn from?
A: Yes, in particular, a mentor who was a program manager with the National Democratic Institute. Once, we left a workshop in a car with a member of Parliament from Somalia in the car. The MP received a phone call and we asked who called. He said, “My brother just got killed in a bomb explosion in Somalia.” And we said, “Oh wow. Do you want us to change your flight? Do you want to go to the finance meeting? Do you want to go now?”
He said,“Inalilahi wa ina ileyhi raji’un. People die every day in Mogadishu.” My boss and I were shocked, wondering “Is this normal?” He’s a member of Parliament. He’s in the legislative branch. He’s running a country, representing a whole constituency. We were just shocked. That’s when my manager, who’s now my friend, told me, “Bishara, you have to pursue your master’s in clinical psychology and you have to address this trauma. We cannot keep training people who have evident signs of PTSD and expect the country to go in a better direction, because these people can barely handle their own personal lives—let alone run a whole country.” So he really encouraged me. He always gave me books. He wrote my letter of recommendation for the Master of Global Affairs program. He really shaped the direction of my career.
The full-text version of this interview was originally published at kroc.nd.edu on March 15, 2021.