The Gulf Coast Jewish Family And Community Services (Gulf Coast) was founded in 1967 to serve Holocaust survivors and their families who resettled on the west coast of Florida. In the years since its inception, the organization has grown to serve families, children and elderly throughout the state of Florida and beyond. While the agency provides a broad range of social services, including programs targeted to serve refugee populations. Gulf Coast is an affiliate of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and in that capacity resettles and places refugees in the Tampa Bay and Miami-Dade communities. In addition to its work with resettling refugees, Gulf Coast also runs The Florida Center for Survivors of Torture and The National Partnership for Community Training. In the last few months we have had the chance to speak with Ann Marie Winter, the Chief Operating Officer to learn more about these programs and how they are having an impact throughout the state of Florida and beyond.
In the 1990s the United States started to receive refugees from Bosnia, and Gulf Coast began providing services to these refugees because, as Winter pointed out, “a lot of the trauma that they had suffered and a lot of the triggers to that trauma, were very similar to what we had been seeing in Holocaust survivors.” It was through that work that the The Florida Center for Survivors of Torture opened in 1999 and has served more than 3,000 survivors of torture with medical, mental health, legal, and social services in Tampa Bay and Miami-Dade. The Florida Center for the Survivors of Torture is 1 of 31 federally funded torture rehabilitation programs and the only one in Florida. In addition to the funding that the center receives from the US federal government, it also receives funding from the United Nations Torture Victims Relief Fund.
Gulf Coast’s Miami-Dade program mainly serves refugees (and asylum seekers) from the Caribbean and Central and South America (primarily Cubans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Venezuelans, Colombians), all fleeing conflict or systemic human rights violations. While many of these conflicts rarely hit the front page of the newspaper, the violence and terror these people are fleeing is equal in adverse impact to the people to the stories of conflict that are more often highlighted in the media. Most of the torture these victims have suffered or witnessed, Winter explains, has been at the hands of military or paramilitary groups, government or secret police, or gangs. “All of these things we were seeing in clients was a little bit different than what we had seen in some of the more ‘mainstream’ refugee populations that we serve.” So they’ve developed and adapted programs and therapy modalities to support the survivorship of these refugees.
Gulf Coast also runs the National Partnership for Community Training (NPCT), which works with refugee resettlement programs throughout the United States to address refugee mental health. While there are 425 program sites around the country serving refugees, many of those organizations are social service agencies that don’t have a mental health component. They help people fill out applications for social security, get jobs, enroll children in school, but don’t normally consider how the mental health component affects a person’s ability to be successful in those areas. Some believe that refugees just need to try harder, to work harder- yet the the outward actions may be symptoms of the underlying trauma they faced, Winter notes. “They have been survivors for so long. When they come to the United States their ability to be good parents might be compromised by now having the opportunity to sit and think about the trauma that they went to in their country of origin.” After coming to the United States, they also sometimes struggle with the transition from living in a refugee camp for so long, the resettlement process can be more unsettling in ways beyond a new culture and new found responsibilities.
By targeting mental health, programs can offer refugees a means to thrive in a new country. Gulf Coast NPCT provides technical assistance to organizations nationwide to help them have the capacity to address refugee mental health issues — for example, how to set up peer mentoring programs and support groups which can provide support for refugees without requiring a medical doctor or a licensed clinician. Gulf Coast also provides regular webinars, and while the focus is support the US agencies, the webinars often have attendees from around the globe, expanding the reach and impact of the programming. Gulf Coast also supports organizations to identify fundraising strategies and grant opportunities in an effort to boost sustainability, while addressing these needs.
Mental health in refugee populations is a relatively new concept. Winter explains, “Florida is 49th in the country in terms of how much it spends on mental health services for its citizens, and so refugees fall right within that group in getting very little assistance from state sources.” Championing a “hand up” versus “hand out” philosophy is fundamental, and community response has been encouraging, Winter says. “We are living in challenging times and we are amazed, blessed, inspired by the community response. They want to learn. We have just had incredible support of people wanting to volunteer, donate their time and money, visit our programs to learn more about what we do, to become educated so that they can go out and answer questions that their friends have.” With so many misconceptions about refugees, this community engagement and education is critical.
Winter, herself the daughter of a refugee, stresses the importance of talking about this work. “I usually get ‘Wow, I didn’t know that! Refugees pay back their airfare? Refugees have to get a job as soon as they arrive? Refugees get a social security number and can work here legally?’ All of these small details are incredibly important in constructing the narrative of who a refugee is and trying to be a welcoming community.”
Winter believes that if we’re not standing up for refugees and immigrants, we are lost. “Most refugees are average everyday people who have been caught up in something they had no control over. In this country, we can stand on the street corner with signs about any issue we wish to talk about to think, 65 million people in the world are displaced because they are not able to do that,” Winter says. She encourages everyone to do something. “Reach out to a refugee organization, see how you can volunteer, how you can donate. Tell your leaders that you are interested in this population, that this is important to me and I want it to be important to you.”