Healthy You Healthy Hennepin

Staff from Metro Youth Diversion Center

Providing opioid prevention services to the East African community

October 2022

In 2021, 340 Hennepin County residents died from an opioid overdose. This crisis, stemming from addiction to and misuse of prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl, is getting worse.

And while the epidemic is impacting all communities, it’s taking a disproportionate toll on some. In Minnesota, for example, American Indians are about seven times more likely to die from a drug overdose as Whites, and African Americans are about twice as likely. These rates are similar for opioid overdose deaths.

Hennepin County is partnering with several Twin Cities organizations to address these disparities by providing culturally relevant opioid prevention services. Below we feature Metro Youth Diversion Center, a nonprofit that’s serving the East African community, a group that’s being disproportionately impacted by the opioid epidemic.

In 2021, 340 Hennepin County residents died from an opioid overdose. This crisis is getting worse and is taking a disproportionate toll on certain communities.



Three friends with a passion for community

When Rashad Ahmed, Bashir Abdi, and Dr. Abdifatah Ali first contemplated a nonprofit, they didn’t realize the role opioid prevention would play – they just knew that they were passionate about community. 

The three friends were born in East Africa and met as kids in San Diego. As adults, they all moved to Minnesota at different times, for different reasons. For a while, they were all working at the University of Minnesota. (Dr. Ali is currently a faculty member in the Carlson School of Management.)

“Metro Youth Diversion Center started from a place of growing up in the inner city,” says Dr. Ali, “and seeing opportunities we hadn’t had like mentorship and support.” Recognizing how fortunate they were to have “made it,” the friends wanted to give back.

They began informally – offering mentorship, youth workshops, and career advice. In 2018, the three launched MYDC, with Rashad as executive director and Bashir as a program director.

Quickly, it became clear that the nonprofit needed to address opioid use. Dr. Ali (pictured below) helped stand up and now oversees this program.


Staff from Metro Youth Diversion Center



The opioid impact they observed

One of the first things the friends observed about the opioid epidemic in their East African community was the stigma. This stigma, in turn, led people to underreport opioid overdoses.

The nonprofit subsequently engaged in conversations with stakeholders about how to reduce the stigma around reporting. “Reporting is tied back to data, and data is tied back to dollars,” says Dr. Ali. “When it’s known that there’s a disproportionate impact in a community then there is more funding.”

The nonprofit is also having conversations about changing the reporting breakdown so that it is reflects smaller, more specific communities. “Currently opioid reporting is at the race level,” explains Dr. Ali. “All Black and African Americans are clumped together, which doesn’t show what’s happening in communities likes ours.” 

A youth-driven effort, with a focus on community elders

As MYDC began confronting opioid stigma and underreporting, youth proved pivotal to the effort. 

“I want to give it back to youth in community,” Dr. Ali says. “They’re doing workshops, community activities, they get on social media to talk about it. Some of them have gone through treatment. They’ve become advocates. That’s really helping with the narrative and making the issue more approachable and acceptable. This is a bottom-up process led by youth!”

MYDC and their youth champions have targeted youth in two charter schools that are predominately East African. Funding from Hennepin County allowed them to run a youth development and skills building pilot class during the 2021-2022 school year that focused on opioid prevention.

In addition to focusing on youth and championing youth advocates, MYDC is employing other culturally relevant responses. One is ensuring that community elders understand the basics, like types of opioids and how to identify that someone is using.

Much of the work to engage elders is happening in faith-based centers like mosques via trusted messengers.

“We have champions within the community,” says Dr. Ali. “Some of the Imams are part of our team. We’ve trained them on the key things to go through with members of their congregation." Typically, this information is shared during Jummah, the Friday midday prayer. 

Staff from Metro Youth Diversion Center work with youth



East African experts, staff lend credibility

MYDC has also had success with leveraging experts, including East African pharmacists, physicians, nurses, and people in health care administration. “Our community is all about credibility,” says Dr. Ali. “When our Pharm/MD comes in and says he’s a doctor, that opens the flood gate of questions, the ‘I have a nephew with this problem.’ Once the engagement is there it really just becomes a conversation.”

MDYC is also hiring and recruiting East African staff like Mustafa Mohamed. Mustafa, a community health worker, has lived in the community his whole life and runs a basketball club. With his hire, MYDC was able to expand beyond handing people a list of opioid prevention and treatment resources. Now they can provide case management and care coordination, too.

“We know that 50% of the hurdle in engagement is credibility,” says Dr. Ali. “To see someone who is from the neighborhood, who teaches basketball to your boys – when that person says this is important the community is much more willing to listen.”  

Looking ahead

These culturally relevant approaches are making a difference. In 2019, an anti-stigma survey revealed that the East African community was hesitant to talk about opioid use and mental health issues, and this was consistent with MYDC’s on-the-ground experiences. Today, however, they’re seeing more traction.

“It was like pulling teeth in 2019 when we were trying to have these conversations with community,” says Dr. Ali. “Versus now people are coming to us, calling us, saying ‘hey, can you do a naloxone training for us?' That’s huge.” 

Speaking of naloxone (Narcan), MYDC is also aware of several overdoses that have been prevented by individuals who learned how to administer Narcan in the nonprofit’s class. 

As another win, MYDC is reengaging the two charter schools where they ran opioid prevention pilot classes during the 2021-2022 school year. They’ve also got three other schools who are interested in partnering on the class. 

As the work evolves, the three friends continue to lead with a culturally relevant lens, mindful of their own lived experiences. “Opioids are a pressing issue here and nationally, and I’m honored to be able to contribute,” says Dr. Ali. “This is about identity. When I see these youth in my community, I see myself 10 to 15 years ago. That’s the reason we do what we do.” 


Learn more about Hennepin County’s opioid prevention work and resources.

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