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Spotlight: Egette Indelele's work to de-stigmatize mental health care for refugees

Egette Indelele applies her own experience to inform the mission and goals when she founded Safe Haven Space, a community wellness program that brings refugees together to learn about mental health and provides access to counselors for one-on-one support. Egette was born in a refugee camp in Tanzania, the daughter of Burundian and Rwandan refugee parents. She witnessed firsthand the need for awareness and access to mental health education for children of refugees.

“The culture I was raised in was very rigid, very bible-oriented.”

Egette says some cultural and religious beliefs – as well as stigma, misconceptions, and a lack of education – raised skepticism about mental health. She said mental health issues from African refugee communities were sometimes attributed to witchcraft and religious demons instead of science-based conditions.

After resettling as a refugee in Virginia, Egette went on to attend high school in Roanoke and went to college at George Mason University. Her observations of the continued misconceptions around mental health led her to pursue a bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology. “I fell in love with research, specifically researching the brain.” She then went on to do her Master’s in Cognitive Behavior Neuroscience, and now works as a researcher at Inova Hospital in Fairfax, Virginia. Her interest in learning more about mental health led her to form a community for others impacted by mental health stigmas. For her, it’s important to meet refugees where they are at.

“Currently, we’re working with Afghan refugees. We want to work with one community at a time.” Egette says that this allows the program to fit the different needs and education styles of a group of refugees. “One of the biggest [issues] was generalizing everyone’s needs because it’s different based on the community.”

She gave an example of how she noticed through research and experience that Afghan refugees tended to learn better in community settings with a trusted community leader present. Refugees have already experienced a lot of change, so Egette’s hope is to provide a comfortable, familiar learning environment that promotes better engagement.

“Their culture and their background and their religion was more community based than individual based,” says Egette. “So we went based on what the culture is already like.”

The community leaders are trained by mental health professionals and end up teaching the classes, so the lessons are led by the Afghan community, for the Afghan community.

In addition to emphasizing mental health for other refugees, Egette knows it’s important to also focus on her own mental health. For her, this means participating in therapy and making time for herself. “It’s not easy constantly giving back,” says Egette. “After graduating college, I realized that I didn’t have a lot of activities that I did for myself … the majority of my time was spent giving, giving, giving.”

Over time, she discovered activities she loved in addition to helping. “I got into nails, I got into yarning, I got into painting … to kind of find myself outside of supporting others and giving myself to others.”

Her own experience in investing in her mental health, as well as her experience as a refugee, helps her advocate for others. “I let them know that you don’t have to be struggling right then and there to be in therapy.” Egette says that therapy is there to help you “know who you are now.”

Egette says that ensuring mental health services to refugee communities is about access, comfort, and establishing trust, particularly when history has discouraged access and trust. Through Safe Haven Space, Egette hopes to promote access by providing contextualized services that meet people at the intersections of their identities.

“I just hope we are there for them as the first people they talk to about mental health so that they can start their healing journey.”

One Journey is proud to partner with Egette and Safe Haven Space as a “take-action” partner at our annual One Journey Festival. To meet Egette and learn more about her organization, join us for this year’s festival on June 24 at the Washington National Cathedral. RSVP for free today!

*Photo by Ashley Jean


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