Unravelling the Trauma of the Journey: North Suffolk Forms Support Group

It was only the second meeting of the new support group for young girls who have come to Chelsea illegally from Central American countries as part of the recent influx, but even with just two meetings, there was finally a moment of relief for the girls.

As Clinicians Ada Aroneanu and Nidia Samayoa went around the room and asked each girl to describe in one word how they felt after the meeting, one after the other said, “relief.”

After seeing countless teen-age girls in the schools or as referrals from MGH-Chelsea with a need for talking out their experiences, North Suffolk Mental Health Association responded recently to the call and decided to form a weekly therapy group for these – and any other – such girls.

It’s just one of several efforts that have popped up in Chelsea recently as city government and local organizations have marshaled resourced to deal with what has quickly become a humanitarian crisis in Chelsea’s streets, schools and halls of justice.

There is no way of counting the numbers of unaccompanied minors or young adults who have come to Chelsea in the recent influx from Central America, but the schools have estimated that a few hundred have enrolled in the middle and high schools. One thing is for certain, more and more young people and young adults are arriving every day in Chelsea very confused and, often, very mistreated.

“I would say adjusting to a new life and a new place and frankly – new family members – is just a huge transition for a lot of adolescents,” Aroneanu said. “Also, dealing with the realities of the distinct traumas of what they experienced in their home countries and then on their journey’s over. That often goes unaddressed.

“A lot of young clients describe their experience as being confusing and one of not knowing how to feel or who to rely upon,” she continued. “It’s hard them to make sense of the experience. We felt we had to form some sort of group where we could address it.”

Aroneanu and Samayoa had been working in the Chelsea schools last year when they discovered that there was just a tremendous need for these young people to unravel what had happened to them, but most important for the teen-age girls – who often times had been sexually assaulted or mistreated in their home countries and on their journeys.

“I made the decision that the first effort should be female only,” said Aroneanu. “It’s not to lower the needs of the young men, but I think a lot of the trauma experienced can be gender specific. What we wanted to do was provide a safe environment for the female population…One reason we felt that providing these services was really important is that this is a highly vulnerable population – especially the girls. They are at a high risk of getting in with risky behaviors as a way of coping with the stress – whether that be substance abuse, risky sexual behavior or even becoming gang involved.”

Supervisors at North Suffolk said they fully supported the two clinicians from the very start, saying it fit squarely in the middle of the organization’s mission.

“Being a non-profit agency that has served the community for so many years, it’s sort of the support system that we provide and have provided to serve the community – no matter where people come from,” said Kasey Crist, director of child and family services. “We believe we should help if we can…Working with this group right now, we might be changing the whole trajectory of their lives for the future.”

Aroneanu said there are numerous issues from the journey that have come up, and some girls are able to speak about those issues within the group and others are not at a point where they can talk about it. That said, all of them have felt relief from just being in a safe environment where such issues are being discussed and dealt with.

Many of their stories of trauma and abuse, Aroneanu said, start in their hometowns well before they even left to come to the U.S.

Now that they are here, though, there are also other issues to detangle.

Many times, she said, the teens arrive to find their parent or parents have new families or have changed. Some, in fact, have never seen their parents, who left them behind to enter the U.S. when they were only babies.

“We see children who have been left behind and then come here and don’t know their parents or find new family situations,” she said. “They deal with not knowing their parents their whole life and now they are expected to recognize them as parents and be obedient. It’s particularly challenging when a teen arrives here and lives with their family and their family members are practically strangers to them.”

Overall, though, it’s not the traumatic stories or the sadness of the entire ordeal that has caught the attention of clinicians in the short time they have had the group. In fact, it’s the resilience.

“A lot of the girls I have worked with are extremely resilient,” said Aroneanu. “They very education-oriented and very optimistic despite it all. They are hopeful and that may not be true for the entire population, but it’s been extremely impressive to me how positive these girls are after having been through so much.”

The North Suffolk Mental Health Association group for teen girls who have come to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors takes place at 301 Broadway, Chelsea, every Thursday from 4-5:30 p.m.

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