When Abshir Yusuf hit rock bottom, he hit hard. At the age of 28, addicted to alcohol and cocaine, his living space consisted of a mattress on the floor above a Scarborough storefront. Jobless, penniless and estranged from his family, mosque and fellow Somalis, his future looked bleak.
Thankfully, the timely intervention of a childhood friend gave Abshir the chance to turn his life around. He is now a counsellor at Renascent—a Toronto recovery centre in operation for almost 50 years.
Abshir said the lack of a Somali presence he could relate to was the biggest barrier he faced during his recovery, which ultimately drove him to create the Somali Peer Mentorship Program. It's a place where Somalis with substance abuse issues can confront their problem with someone who shares their culture, speaks their language, and knows what they're going through.
After Abshir launched the program in January 2018, it immediately caught the attention of Community Safety Advisor Ken Tooby, who recognized the urgent need for this type of program that could benefit tenants.
According to Abshir, Ken understood that addiction as a prevalent issue that can fuel many things like violent crimes and gang affiliation. "His thinking was that if one can address the addiction component and help the community with counselling services and access to equitable resources that youth would be less inclined to join gangs or commit crimes," Abshir said.
Ken, who has been helping Yusuf promote the program, is enthusiastic about the response so far. "Tenants really appreciate the effort we're making to reach out to them," he says. "Substance abuse is a problem in some of our communities, especially given the current opioid crisis. Hopefully this program and others like it will lead to healthier, safer neighbourhoods for everyone."
While Abshir specializes in counselling those in the Somali community—particularly youth—he's quick to point out that all are welcome at Renascent, no matter their age or background. Also, he can provide a referral to anyone who needs it.
Having battled stigma, Abshir concentrates on the cultural hurdles confronting Somalis and other immigrants coping with addiction. Both religion and family reputation are at the forefront.
"I think the biggest challenge many people in these communities face is the notion of a moral deficiency, which sets aside the disease model of addiction," he says. "So what happens is that a lot of people struggling with substance issues are incapable of relaying this to their families or friends, because they don't want to risk being shunned."
Abshir hopes to develop the program to the point where he can start a drop-in centre away from community hubs—to better maintain the anonymity of patients—as well as an outpatient system and partnerships with other treatment centres. "What we're doing is planting the roots so it can grow, and assistance from agencies such as Toronto Community Housing at this stage is critically important," he said.
Abshir's message to those coping with addiction or a substance use disorder is, "You're not alone, and there's hope. All you have to do is reach out. And if you do that, I'll be at the other end of the line."
If you need help, here's how you can get in touch with Abshir: