Access Institute | Cultural Connection
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31 Jan Cultural Connection

January 31, 2018

In September, Access Institute began providing therapy to students at Sanchez Elementary as part of its In-School Mental Health Program expansion. Almost 80% of the approximately 250 students at Sanchez Elementary are Latino, many of whom are immigrants. Immigrant children face a number of unique challenges, including language barriers, cultural acclimation, and trauma related to the experience of leaving their homeland.

The anxiety and emotional impact that accompany the immigrant experience is very familiar to Access Institute therapist Nadia Thalji – she too is an immigrant. Nadia speaks Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Italian, and English. She has lived in Egypt, Jordan, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Brazil, and Texas. Nadia understands firsthand the cultural shock of adjusting to life in a foreign country, and how the transition can have a tremendous impact on an individual’s sense of identity. In fact, her dissertation is on the psychological impact of immigration.

Nadia’s background made her the perfect candidate to provide mental health treatment to the children at Sanchez Elementary. “I come from a different culture as well, which helps me connect with kids from diverse backgrounds,” she said. “Like the kids, I come from a place of ‘not knowing,’ which opens up a safe space for them. It drops the expectation that I’m going to react to them in a certain way,” said Nadia.

Board games in this country are new to Nadia just like they are for the immigrant children, which she uses as a tool to help them express themselves. “Sometimes we teach each other the rules of the game, and other times we make up new rules because we’re ‘different.’ That helps them feel like they can relate to me. It also gives them a sense of freedom.” When students assume the role as teacher in a game, it’s also empowering for them. “I am an adult and authority figure, but they are teaching me something. That gives them a feeling of validation, which many of the kids need because they are being bullied at school,” Nadia said.

Nadia’s background also piques the curiosity of the kids – they initiate questions about her accent and where she came from. When they ask her questions, they tend to open up and be receptive to her questions as well, which facilitates therapy.

Their dialogue often reveals what experiences they share in common. “One of the kids who is a refugee asked me how I came here. I came on a plane. He came on a boat. We both crossed borders, so right away we were able to bond over something we share in common.”

Over the last few months Nadia has witnessed remarkable progress with the children who are participating in Access Institute’s mental health program. When school started in September, one of the refugee students who recently came from Central America was so fearful and anxious that she constantly ran away from school staff and Nadia. “Now she runs to me whenever she sees me. She finally feels safe,” said Nadia.

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