Domestic violence, kidnapping, rape, gangs—these are just some of the issues that women immigrants who come from El Salvador have faced in their lives and when they come to DC, Unity Health Care tries to help them cope.
Debra Vekstein has been a mental health clinician and licensed professional counselor for Unity Health Care for 15 years, providing both individual and group therapy to many of the Spanish-speaking immigrants who have made their way to the District.
“We’re dealing a lot with people who have suffered major losses, either by leaving families behind or having lost someone close to them,” she said. “They are also leaving the familiarity of their own culture and because they speak another language, face a number of challenges here. That often leads to anxiety, stress and depression.”
Out of the need to address all those issues, and provide a safe place for women to express their feelings, she began leading the support group, Charla Con Café five years ago.
Each Monday afternoon a group of up to a dozen women meet at Unity Health’s Columbia Road Health Center to talk about everything from problems at home to the pain of loss to discussing healthy food choices. Vekstein said the majority of the participants are suffering from some degree of depression, and a group setting is a great way to get people comfortable with opening up.
“A psychiatrist and I were observing this isolation that so many of our patients were going through. So many of them work two jobs and could barely make ends meet, so having time for socializing or friendship is something that didn’t exist for many of them,” she said. “An advantage of having a group like this is so people can meet others going through similar problems so they don’t feel so alone or isolated.”
One of those in the group is Lena, a woman who has been battling depression for a number of years, but has found help in working with Vekstein and the group over the last four years.
“I came here for the purpose of bettering myself and my overall well-being,” she said. “I have improved a lot throughout my time coming here, and developing new friendships has been a big part of that.”
One woman, Reina, starting coming to the group due to depression over her son being murdered in El Salvador.
“When I came to this country, I only had my husband to confide in, but after meeting the women in this group, I gained a new family,” she said. “There’s a lot of communication between the group and we trust that what we say stays within the group.”
That’s something that another participant, Mora, has also enjoyed. She believes the support has helped her be a better mother to her kids, as she is in a better place emotionally.
“Debra and the others come here to discuss everything—both happy and sad thoughts—and everything gets put on the table,” she said. “I’ve been able to develop a strong support system through their guidance and been able to overcome my own personal issues.”
Other regular participants are Milinia, a single mother who fled to the U.S., after her daughter was kidnapped in El Salvador, and often talks about the fear she still feels for her and her daughter; and Rosa, who used to hear voices inside her head that told her to harm herself.
“I reached the point that I really needed something so I gave the program a try and thanks to them, the voices have gone away and I’ve been able to have a more normal life,” she said. “Many of these women have similar issues and understand what it’s like to come from a different country.”
“Since all this stuff has happened with immigration, it’s been completely overwhelming,” Vekstein said. “People are scared and a lot of them don’t know what’s going to happen. Some are undocumented, some are residents and some are citizens, but there’s a level of fear felt by all.”
Confidentiality is strongly emphasized for members to feel safe to share, and kindness and empathy are encouraged to facilitate the healing process. Vekstein noted that the group does more than just talk, however.
“One of our participants brought some yarn and showed everyone how to knit, and another time we had jewelry making,” she said. “You do things to take them out of their heads sometimes.”
Sometimes they even do things outside of the meeting, such as go to one of DC’s public pools, attend a Nationals game or even meet for dinner and a museum trip thanks to Unity supplying the funds. On Thanksgiving, they hold a pot-luck dinner and for Christmas, they exchange small gifts to recreate the holiday as a group.
“It is an open group and people will come and go, because sometimes they will need to work or something will happen with their family, but they know they can always come back,” Vekstein said. “It’s very welcoming and everyone gets a great deal out of it.”
Names have been changed to protect the identity of participants.