A Spotlight On: The Niyyah Recovery Initiative

Providing culturally responsive recovery support and advocacy in MN’s East African immigrant, refugee and Muslim community

By Farhia Budul

NOTE: This was originally published in June 2021 for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.

Farhia Budul

Too many East African people have overdosed. Too many have had their lives wrecked by alcohol and other drugs. And too few have had a lifeline to recovery. We have seen this happen again and again. And I want it to stop.

As someone in long-term recovery who has spent years working as an addiction counselor in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, I believed I could do something no one else was doing. I realized too many East African immigrants like me were suffering and dying from their substance use disorders because too few people like me were in a position to help them recover.

So I created the Niyyah Recovery Initiative. Niyyah is the first recovery community organization focused on helping East African immigrants overcome substance use disorder — located in Minneapolis, home to the largest such community in the nation.

In Arabic, the root of the word “Niyyah’’ means both “seed” and “intention.” Much like a seed, our intention to attain sobriety and long-term recovery can blossom from deep roots. Healthier seeds — and intentions — can spring from the initial one, and can grow from this generation to the next.

I know firsthand how difficult recovery can be when you’re trying to establish and sustain it within a wider culture that has no understanding of your own traditions, religion or ethnic roots. One size simply does not fit all.

In my case, I was in and out of treatment before my recovery took hold. Most people with this disease understand the paralyzing power of stigma and shame, but it’s painfully acute in a traditional Muslim culture that flatly prohibits the use of intoxicants. It’s not just bad — it’s sinful. And the layers of shame that accompany substance use disorders make it harder to recover.

Refugee parents and Imams of young immigrants simply don’t understand. Nothing in their experience gave them the tools they need to help their sons and daughters navigate a society brimming with alcohol and other drugs.

And, well-intentioned as they may be, treatment counselors are sometimes at a loss to understand the stresses and disorientation of young East African Americans. It can be hard for them to reach clients whose perspective and life experience differ so much from their own.

I’ve had the recent good fortune of working as the East African outreach manager for Minnesota Recovery Connection, our state’s oldest recovery community organization (RCO), and will leverage that experience and MRC’s proven strategies and programs to expand my work with the East African community through Niyyah.

Honoring all pathways to recovery, and all people regardless of religion or ethnicity, we will use faith, family, relationships and other individualized strategies to nurture recovery.

Our plans include building peer recovery support network, with certified peer recovery specialists able to connect in person and over the phone to help people build skills, connect with social-service organizations and begin to build their own social networks and recovery capital.

Niyyah’s “forensic peers” also will be able to help people navigate the criminal justice system if they have landed there due to substance use, serving as advocates in the areas of probation, child protective services and drug and DWI courts.

Niyyah already hosts a Twelve Step recovery meeting and will soon offer alternative “all-recovery” mutual aid meetings as well as

Millati Islami (“Path of Peace”) — support groups specifically intended to connect Muslim people in recovery.

Our plans also include family support groups, reflecting the fact that addiction impacts the entire family and that healing and recovery can, too.

Beyond direct recovery assistance, there’s also a pressing need for recovery advocacy and outreach in the East African community. If people like me can put our own public face on recovery, we can whittle away at the stigma and shame that have plagued us.

Niyyah may be the first RCO of its kind, but my hope is that it won’t be the last. The tools and principles of recovery can work for everyone if adapted to meet the needs and contexts of people from different backgrounds and cultures. By acknowledging that, we can do so much more.

Farhia Budul, CPRS, CPP, FPRS, is the founder of Niyyah Recovery Initiative in Minneapolis.

Farhia Budul signs the Mobilize Recovery Across America tour bus during a stop in Minneapolis on Sept. 11, 2022.

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As a force of healing & hope for those affected by addiction, we feature insights and views from leading voices on prevention, treatment & recovery.