Report details concerning mental health issues in Afghan refugee children at Chicago shelter

Chicago News

Heartland Alliance denies claims there are problems, no translators

CHICAGO — A new report details concerning mental health issues at a South Side shelter for Afghan refugee children.

Afghan children began arriving as refugees at the Heartland Alliance shelter in Bronzeville, a former nursing home, in August — as the United States began evacuations during its withdrawal from the country.

Propublica reports a crisis of mental health inside the building in the months since.

Propublica reporter Melissa Sanchez said in the last five weeks there have been dozens of calls to police — three for suicide attempts or threats, five for batteries or assaults, and two for mental health disturbances.  

“There’s a staggering number of incidents involving children exhibiting suicidal ideations or are harming themselves, harming others,” she said. “Workers said to their managers, one after the other, ‘I have never seen this much disorganization and chaos and stress.’

Danger, complicated by communication barriers.

“They have absolutely nobody in this building who speaks pashto or dari which are the main languages the children speak,” Sanchez said. “So all of that stuff together was truly staggering.”

Vanessa Igess, the program director of Heartland Alliance, denies that claim.

“No that’s not true, “ she said. “We have over 30 different languages spoken at any given time.”

The shelter is one of four in Chicago run by Heartland Alliance.

Igess said Heartland is housing 78 Afghan children, mostly teenagers, at the four shelters. About 55 of them are at the Bronzeville location. They all had to leave behind families that made sacrifices for their safety.

“I have children who their parents threw them over fences, or pushed them, or fought the Taliban to get them through the gate to get a seat on the plane,” Igess said.

She paints a picture of progress in the shelter – not one of chaos.

“We’re working to help stabilize them and I think we will be good because even in this short amount of time, and the amount  children we’ve had come into the program, we’ve seen improvements,” Igess said.

“They were handed a really complicated situation but at the end of the day, kids are being harmed. Kids are suffering. Kids are languishing in this place,” Sanchez said. “And I think the American public should know that.”

Heartland Alliance issued a statement to WGN News that read, in part:

Since the latest Afghan humanitarian crisis began in August, we have provided Afghan evacuees with safety and stability as they enter the U.S. through resettlement services including housing, public benefits, employment support, and education. We have sought and received tremendous support from the local Afghan community as we welcome these newcomers. We are deeply honored to support this community as they rebuild their lives, and their gratitude for our care has been heartwarming.

We have met with City and State partners to address significant systemic barriers to accessing psychiatric assessments for children in need of in-patient care. We are in regular communication with local hospitals and clinicians to augment the limited supports available. At the same time, we have enlisted a provider to begin individual and group therapy for some of the youth. We also have been connecting our Afghan youth with individuals from the Afghan community and offering in-person Jummah prayers, weekly visits to the mosque, and integrating many cultural comforts like foods and activities that the youth are requesting.

Read the full statement HERE.

The shelter is located in Congressmen Bobby Rush’s district. WGN News reached out to his office for comment. A spokesperson said Rush’s office is willing to help and has called on the Office of Refugee Resettlement to help with translators.

The full statement is as follows:

I am horrified by the recent reports of chaos and dysfunction at the Heartland shelter. These children from Afghanistan have experienced unimaginable trauma, and the language barrier hindering communication between them and the staff at heartland is only compounding that trauma and confusion.

My office has reached out to Heartland and stands ready to assist. Additionally, I am calling on the office of Refugee Resettlement, and Heartland, to step up and increase their efforts to immediately get translators on site, provide necessary support for staff and children, and ensure that these children get the mental and psychiatric care they so badly need. Afghan refugees should never have received such a traumatic reception in our nation. These kinds of unwelcoming circumstances must come to a screeching halt.

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