A coalition aimed at tacking substance abuse and the stigmas it casts on the Arab American community kicked off on a powerful note on Tuesday, May 10.
SAFE (Safety, Addiction, Family, Education) held its first town hall meeting at HYPE Athletics, with the participation of health professionals, judicial officials, educators and hundreds of community members.
The coalition's executive board includes SAFE Executive Director Hassan Abdallah; HYPE CEO Ali Sayed; pharmacist Ghada Abdallah; Dr. Ali Dabaja, a physician at Beaumont Hospital and Zainab Jaafar-Chami, owner of a local pharmacy.
SAFE's executive board was among a guest of panelists that included Ed Jouney, a clinical instructor at the University of Michigan; 41st District Judge Linda Davis; 20th District Judge David Turfe; Darlene Owens, director of Substance Abuse Disorders and Youssef Mosallam, executive director of Student Achievement at Dearborn Schools.
Hassan Abdallah kicked off the forum by explaining why it's crucial to launch an initiative aimed at shedding light on substance abuse.
"We are far beyond needing to lose the life of a loved one to understand that we need to do something about this," he said. "We cannot continue to cry at funerals and say 'I wish I would have.' SAFE is about breaking the cultural barriers we have about this issue."
Drug abuse has been attributed as the root cause of a string of deaths that have occurred in the Arab American community over the last year. However, families still have difficulties addressing addiction because they fear social scrutiny.
Judge Davis shared a powerful story about her daughter's struggle with heroin and the strenuous steps it took for her to recover.
Davis said as a mother, she was ashamed to go public with her daughter's addiction.
"I was literally watching her die in front of me," Davis said. "I was totally helpless. I didn't know what to do. We sent her from one treatment center to another. None of them seemed to make a difference. She went from being a healthy teenage girl to an 80-pound skeleton whose eyes were hollow. She was unrecognizable to me."
Davis told the crowd that when a family member is battling addiction, it impacts everyone in the household. She said she endured many months of sleepless nights worrying about her daughter.
Davis said it took her a while to work up the courage to go public with her daughter's struggle. However, she decided to do it in hopes of impacting other families who may be facing similar obstacles. Once she did so, she realized that it was a therapeutic avenue for her.
"I want you to understand what a serious family disease this is," Davis said. "I will tell you that this was the most embarrassing thing that has happened in my life. I still cringe when I have to stand up in front of a group of strangers and talk about this. We are afraid of being ostracized and no one would understand. As a result of that, kids are dying and families are crumbling right before our very eyes."
During the panel's Q&A session, Lobna Fakih, a local doctor and parent who was in the audience, said that students often are aware of peers who are drug abusers, but they choose not to report it to any authorities.
She cited her son's friend as an example. He died shortly after graduating high school last year and was a known drug addict. Yet none of his friends ever stepped in to prevent him from harming himself.
"I want to say something to the kids that are out here," Fakih said. "You know who the kids are that are taking drugs. Some of these kids who are not using drugs see it out there and they are still quiet. We really need to give them a source they can go to."
Another local parent asked educators if they would be willing to randomly drug test their students.
Mosallam said that the law does not allow Dearborn Schools to randomly drug test its students. However, he noted that if a minor is identified as a drug user, the school takes necessary steps to address it to the family.
He said they've conducted home visits with families of students, as well as held seminars to assist parents in identifying drug abuse.
"Whenever there is a concern, we bring that concern to the family," Mosallam said. "As a community we have to understand that when we bring those conversations to the family, we need to work together to not look at it as a taboo or as a stigma."
Many community members called for educators, religious institutions and health professionals to take preventive measures to limit drug abuse.
However, Jouney said that more than 23 million Americans are drug addicts and that it's already far too embedded into society to take preventive steps. He instead challenged the community to be open with the issue and called for leaders to educate families on the resources they could take to get help.
"This is not something that we will be able to prevent," Jouney said. "This is something that is ubiquitous throughout society. Our community is not an exception. We have to understand that. No religious or spiritual group is going to bring an end to this illness."
Ghada Abdallah said that many pharmacists are buckling down on prescriptions to ensure that patients aren't abusing drugs. She said that she's contacted the DEA on multiple occasions to report doctors who she suspects are writing out prescriptions irresponsibly.
"I just want to reassure everyone in the community that the majority of pharmacists are doing the right thing," she said. "We verify prescriptions to make sure they are real. We verify them with the doctors…we question patients. There are so many steps we follow to make sure we are doing the right thing."
She noted that many consumers end up obtaining their drugs from patients who already have prescriptions. Those patients recklessly disburse their medications to family members and friends, which leads to a pattern of abuse.
She urged all pharmacies to set up a drop off box in their retail stores to allow patients to dispose of their medications once they are done using them.
Dabaja said physicians need to hold their healthcare networks accountable, citing corporate greed as one of the leading factors of substance abuse.
"This is the moment to ask how has this epidemic been caused by the uncontrollable culture of consumerism and corporate interests," Dabaja said. "I think hospitals are now catching on to this trend of abuse. I know each hospital system is working diligently to find solutions, but it really is a little too late."
Barbara W. Rossmann, president and chief executive officer of Henry Ford Macomb Hospitals, said the company has recently implemented new policies in how a physician can administer prescriptions.
"We've changed prescribing habits in our ER," Rossmann said. "All of our physician prescribers can only administer an X number of opioids to any person that comes through the ER and we do not do refills. Our physicians can only order according to protocol. And we are now working with our surgical teams to get them to the same place."
The members of SAFE's executive board said they were surprised by the turnout of the event, which included more than 250 community members and elected officials. The coalition is planning more events with the assistance of local mosques for the upcoming month of Ramadan.
"Seeing community members being engaged in the dialogue was inspiring and is a huge testament to how much of a difference we can make just by being proactive," Hassan Abdallah said.
To learn more about the group, visit its Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/safesubstanceabusecoalition/?fref=ts
By Samer Hijazi