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Dignity: A story of mental health and resilience

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The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly heightened mental health concerns. As violence increases around the world in the context of shelter-in-place orders, people who experience violence face increased fear, worry, and anxiety. Health concerns, workplace safety issues, financial stability, employment security—all of these factors have compounded to increase the stress levels of individuals. Given the circumstances, it is no surprise that clients’ need for mental health services at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Denver has greatly multiplied. Karen Larsen, communications volunteer, interviewed Leila Buzan, family stabilization specialist, about her career in mental health and her approach to IRC clients prior to and during COVID-19.

What does the notion of “dignity” mean to you?  In Leila’s Buzan role, it means walking “side by side” with her clients as they make decisions about the life they want to live. “I want to honor and respect their choices, ensure that they are at the center of solving their issues.”   

Early influences 

Leila was born and raised in Austin, Texas and both her undergraduate and graduate degrees are from the University of Texas – Austin. This is where she first experienced the importance of treating others with the dignity they deserve. Her father volunteered at a shelter for undocumented immigrants, delivering food for the monthly potlucks the shelter hosted for current and former residents. Leila remembers accompanying her father to the shelter, starting as early as elementary school. The monthly potlucks were an influence on her career path and drive to serve others. Leila continued to volunteer and was an intern at the shelter for a semester during college. As she describes her interest, “I was drawn to the migrant experience. It is humbling. You see the extent of human resilience when you work with people who have experienced being displaced.”

Language opens doors

Leila discovered that language was a door-opener to her first employment opportunities. With her mother being from South America, she speaks Spanish naturally. Her bilingual skills led her to study Arabic in college as an elective course. In addition to the language, she became interested in the Arab world more broadly. She knew she wanted to spend time in the Middle East and work with people who had been displaced by conflict.


Leila Buzan, family stabilization specialist at the IRC in Denver Photo: Photo courtesy of Leila Buzan

Several sides of immigration

After graduating from college, Leila first worked in refugee resettlement for a small agency with refugees from Sudan, Cuba, and Iraq. After obtaining a Master's Degree in Social Work, she had the opportunity to work for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), based in Amman, Jordan. In her role at the IOM, Leila interviewed individuals in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region applying for resettlement in the United States, including those who had obtained refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Iraqis affiliated with the United States after 2003. 

Leila’s nearly three years with IOM coincided with the first and subsequent U.S. executive orders affecting the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. She learned during her IOM experience that:

  • Every person’s situation was different. “Listening to these people’s experiences was very tough. Eye-opening. At the same time, you are amazed at how resilient and adept people can be at solving complex problems.”
  • The U.S. political climate and executive orders caused downstream turmoil for her work in refugee processing at the IOM. “The context in which we worked changed constantly. Our own ability to make adjustments was tested, too.”

When she decided it was time to leave her role with IOM, she became interested in pursuing a position with the IRC in either an international or U.S. capacity. “A slightly bigger part of me wanted to return to the U.S.,” and she felt the IRC might be a good fit for her interests and experience. Leila was interviewed several times by phone while still in Amman and, after a brief respite with family in Austin, she moved to Denver to accept her current position.  

As a family stabilization specialist, Leila works with refugee clients who are especially vulnerable or at-risk, including those facing significant challenges to their safety and emotional wellbeing. She manages a caseload of approximately 15 to 20 clients with a varying intensity of needs. Her goal is to help them achieve stability, self-sufficiency and a place of empowerment regarding challenges they are facing. A person may receive these IRC services if they meet the Reach Program eligibility requirements as established by the Colorado Refugee Services Program (CRSP).   

Like her experience in Amman, Leila finds that each individual served by IRC is unique. “The extra support they need looks very different depending on the individual and the challenges they face.” Services of the IRC’s Family Stabilization Program range from one-to-one coaching and emotional support to referrals to community partners to help clients address a variety of needs. 

Strength in surprising places

Leila knows what it is like to feel satisfied with the support she provides. “What I find most rewarding is when I am able to build a relationship with a client that helps them make progress in the direction they want to go.” A large proportion of her caseload is comprised of women, particularly single moms. She finds working with them to be “something special.” 

“Sometimes they don’t feel or realize how strong they are, how resilient they are. Life can be overwhelming for them. Some clients just need time and someone to walk side by side with them to get past the issue they are facing.”

Sustaining her service mentality

Leila admits there definitely are challenges in her position as a family stabilization specialist. She manages the stress she feels for her clients by reminding herself how strong and resilient they are, how skilled they are at solving what seem like intractable problems. “I have to remind myself that I’m not as important as I may think I am in their lives. While it can sometimes feel like I am their only safety net, they have other internal and external resources.”

The scope of the services Leila and her peers provide can feel challenging. However, the flexibility they have built into the program allows for helping people with urgent needs. Even with this ability to serve clients in immediate need, she still asks herself, “Have I done enough? Have I been available enough? Have I been supportive enough? Sometimes I feel like I am serving my clients well, but I also feel like I am learning from them. It is very humbling.”

Another challenge working in resettlement is navigating imperfect systems. The needs are great according to Leila: “Affordable housing and health care, adequate safety nets for survivors of intimate partner violence, jobs that pay our clients an adequate wage…the list goes on. We do the best we can to help our clients find their way through the system but can’t always change or solve the systemic issues for them.”

What matters

Service to those who have been marginalized is important to Leila. “Social justice. I want to advocate for the people I work with so they have the opportunity to live with dignity and wellbeing. I want them to experience joy and safety. All the things we consider to be basic human rights.”

Leila realizes time away from work also matters. Only one year into living in Colorado and she already has discovered one of its popular sports—rock climbing. She looks forward to applying her rock-climbing skill outside soon, promising to wear a harness as her own safety net.