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How Brooklyn's Arab-American Community is Fighting the Opioid Crisis

By Cynthia Betubiza

New York City is experiencing an opioid crisis. In 2016, the number of overdose deaths surpassed 1,075. That’s a 70 percent increase from 2014. And it’s not just affecting adults. According to the National Institute of Health, even high schoolers are abusing opioids.

Talking to kids about drugs can be tough. But, cultural stigma can make having tough conversations even harder. Reporter Cynthia Betubiza looks at how one local community is coping.

BETUBIZA 1: Bensonhurst is home to one of New York City’s largest Arab-American communities.

It’s the last Friday before Ramadan.

And the Muslim American Society Youth Center is packed. Boys and girls of all ages are seated around a long table in a classroom. A poster of a friendly-looking cartoon character bee hangs on the wall.  The kids are here to learn more about Islam, trade life advice, and just kick it.

ELCHARFA 1: The people who I would call my friends I would say are mainly from the Mosque…They have my back, I have their  back, and it’s been a bond since I was younger

BETUBIZA 2: Abubeckr Elcharfa is 15. He’s in the 10th grade. He’s rocking a bright blue t-shirt and a wide, braces-filled smile.

Like any teenager, Elcharfa’s navigating around some tricky waters.

ELCHARFA 2: Partying, definitely, drinking….tattoos, nasty, and all that…so pointless!

BETUBIZA 3: And a big one:

ELCHARFA 3: using drugs….

BETUBIZA 4: Elcharfa says he feels nervous talking to his parents about that one.

ELCHARFA 4: If I ask my parents, I know they’re gonna think of the worst, that’s how Arab parents are. They’d think like either I’m doing it or I know someone that they know that might be doing it and they wanna tell their mom.

BETUBIZA 5: Across the table, Omar Yayhya chuckles at Elchara. He’s 19, in college. He says he’s seen firsthand what happens when kids are afraid to talk to their parents.

YAYHYA 2: …one of my friends, he’s into some drugs…It’s a big issue. If you’re using medication like Oxycontin, percocets, individuals use epinephrine…I know one individual who uses epinephrine, I don’t know where he gets epinephrine but epinephrine is a dangerous drug, that’s a drug that’s for cardiac arrest.

BETUBIZA 7: Abuse of epinephrine’s not as common as other drugs like Fentanyl, Oxycontin, Percocets, and Morphine. The kinds of medicines you can get with a prescription.

That accessibility is a big part of New York City’s opioid crisis. And out of the all boroughs, that crisis is the worst in Brooklyn. In 2017, there were 350 overdose deaths here.

And that has many parents concerned. But cultural stigma can make addressing this issue difficult.

Sabrina Zahir is a social worker at the Arab-American Association of New York in Bay Ridge.

She picks her words carefully. She says that many parents in her community are traditional.

ZAHIR 1: Word spreads in the community…but a lot of it is swept under the rug and there have been times where if someone overdoses, they try to say that it was a heart attack and not an overdose, they look for another medical reason.

BETUBIZA 8: Zahir says some parents can worry that other people will negatively judge their families if they find out one of their own is struggling with addiction. It’s a problem that can bring shame.

ZAHIR 2: Because of that, we haven’t had the chance to help because there’s so much stigma. They don’t want people to know their son or their daughter died because of this.

BETUBIZA 9: So, Zahir says, she tries to approach the subject of drug abuse as tactfully as possible.

When another organization held a workshop on Narcan, a medicine that helps stop overdoses, some parents from the community spoke out against it.  Zahir says this made her hesitant to try something similar.

ZAHIR 3: We fear community backlash…. There’s not much talk about harm reduction. It would be nice for this  place to have a needle exchange. But again, someone might voice that we are promoting drug use by doing that.

BETUBIZA 10: But some approaches in drug education are making headway. Mark Marroquin is with the Beit El-Maqdis Islamic Center of Bay Ridge.

He says talking about drugs in a familiar religious setting can lessen the shame. He says it’s like this: if someone says they’re going to a drug workshop, rumors could easily circulate about their family. But if that same person says they’re going to an an event at the mosque, there’s nothing suspicious or out of place about that.

So he helped organize a special Iftar—a daily breaking of the fast during Ramadan—last spring. He says community members came and they talked.

MARROQUIN 1: Issues with their children such as the influences of drugs, marijuana, opioids, and they wanted to talk about how they could combat these issues with their children

BETUBIZA 11: Weam Al-Rubaye moved here from Iraq with her husband and four kids five years ago. She’s familiar with the stigma that can come with talking about drugs.

AL-RUBAYE 1 : The community’s so small and they think maybe [if] anyone heard about that, they’d blame the parents. “How [they can] not protect them?”

BETUBIZA 12: But Al-Rubaye wants to talk. Her youngest daughter is a senior at Fort Hamilton High School. She told her mom  sometimes she sees people doing opioids outside of her high school.

That’s why Al-Rubaye wants more of the conversations to happen at schools.

AL-RUBAYE 2: I think if the school always make meeting between the parents and between them, not just for every 3 months…try to do it every 2 months and discuss their problems with their parents and how they can solve them.

BETUBIZA 13: Parents like her have taken action. And now, age-appropriate education on opioid addiction will  be included in public school curriculum, starting in the fall of this year.

As for 15-year-old Abubeckr Elcharafa, he’s already found his solution. He saw other kids at his school doing drugs. So he switched schools.

ELCHARFA 5: Peer pressure’s not  a thing. If I don’t want to go, no one’s gonna force me to do it. And there’s no way someone’s gonna say, “Oh, it’s cool…”. It’s not.

BETUBIZA 14: Sabrina Zahir, the social worker with  the Arab American Association of New York, says she’s starting to plan events on opioids. Slowly.

Cynthia Betubiza, Columbia Radio News

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