Alumni couple specializes in providing therapy for immigrants and people of color.
By any measure, the state of
mental health in America is
worsening for people of all races
and ethnicities—and a two-year
pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges. But one married couple is helping
an underserved community seek treatment
and smash society’s stigmas associated with
Edwin Swaray (B.A. ’06) and Vivian Ballah-Swaray (B.A. ’05) are co-owners of VEEMAH
Integrated Wellness and Consulting
Services in Crystal, Minnesota, putting them among only an estimated 3 percent of Black-owned counseling services in the U.S. today.
Although their facility welcomes all clients,
VEEMAH specializes in providing mental
health care services and addiction treatment
for immigrants and people of color.
Edwin, who also became a licensed
alcohol and drug counselor after graduation,
provides chemical dependency treatment
for his clients while Vivian, a licensed
psychologist, helps children and adults who
have experienced trauma. The duo draws
on their shared experiences as West African
refugees who met as teenagers in Monrovia,
Liberia, and endured the turmoil of civil wars
and multiple displacements in the 1990s.
“Prior to the civil war, I never imagined
leaving Liberia,” says Edwin. “After the war,
leaving was all I thought about. It was not
a safe place to stay.” After marrying, they
sought U.S. asylum in the Twin Cities, where
Vivian’s aunt lived. Shortly after, the couple
enrolled at the University of Minnesota.
“We wanted to challenge ourselves academically by attending one of the best-ranked
universities in the country,” says Edwin, who
majored in journalism while writing articles for
The Minnesota Daily, the student newspaper.
Vivian discovered her passion during an
introductory course in psychology.
“That class sparked something in me,” says Vivian. “It helped me begin to understand my reaction to the war. How I reacted to loud noises, to thunder, to seeing a person in a military uniform . . . all of these were triggering to me.”
Inspired by the class, Vivian changed
her major and began a healing journey to
address her trauma and to educate her
community about their shared experiences.
In 2018, she opened VEEMAH (named by
combining “Vivian” with Edwin’s middle
name “Nyumah”). Two years later, Edwin
decided to join the practice.
“After George Floyd was murdered, I finally said, ‘This is it. I’m going to partner with Vivian.’ It was the best decision we ever made,” Edwin says. “When there are practitioners of color like us, our clients come in knowing they can identify with us. They feel so at home.”
Many of their clients are immigrants from
Somalia, Ethiopia, and Liberia.
“That shows there’s still a lot of stigma
associated with seeking help in the immigrant community,” says Edwin. “These
people are going through racial trauma
issues or depression and anxiety because
they’ve lost a job or they’ve lost loved ones,
and many still wouldn’t seek help.”
Vivian understands the reluctance.
“People who struggle with trauma have a
way of learning how to protect themselves
and to disassociate when the pain becomes
too much. That’s what I think most of us as
humans do,” she says. “That’s one of the
reasons that we’re in this practice today. It’s
the hope that if we help one person with
mental health issues, then our work will not
be in vain.”
Like many health practitioners, Edwin and
Vivian themselves also struggle at times.
Even today, they find it difficult to cope when the startling sounds of neighborhood firecrackers or fireworks erupt during the Fourth
of July. For them, it brings back the din of
gunshots and bomb explosions. But they
both recognize that their past experiences
have shaped their careers in satisfying ways.
As a boy, Edwin watched his mother
battle alcohol dependency. In West African
culture, addiction was considered a moral
issue, not a disease. “I eventually reasoned
that since I was unable to help my mother, I
will spend the rest of my life helping those
who struggle with substance use disorder—especially the people in my immediate
community,” he says.
“It’s been challenging but also a very
rewarding experience to see the impact
we’ve made and continue to make in our
community,” says Vivian. “The joy is the
reward we get from the work we do.”
Colin Sokolowski is a Twin Cities writer.