We Recover With Others: A Conversation with Farhia Budul

Photo Sarah Whiting

In 2012, Farhia Budul became the first Somali American to work as an addiction counselor in the state of Minnesota. As a young mother, Budul struggled with alcoholism, and was inspired to help others in recovery after attending group counseling. But Budul later relapsed, and hid from the recovery community and her friends and family. “I was spiritually bankrupt,” she says. “That isolation was the root cause of addiction for me.”

After regaining her footing, in 2021 Budul founded Niyyah Recovery Initiative, the first community-based recovery service focused on East Africans. Now she juggles mothering two children, a full-time job, and political organizing work on top of working behind the scenes at Niyyah.

Minnesota Women’s Press caught up with Budul to talk about the unique challenges and advantages of being a woman trying to make change in this space, why she believes recovery is inextricable from connection with culture and community, and the courage it takes to own your story. The following is an edited transcript.

My family fled the war in Somalia in the early 1990s. We lived in a refugee camp in Nairobi before we settled in San Diego. A year later we moved to Minneapolis as part of the first wave of Somali immigrants to Minnesota. Growing up, I was active and played sports. In the refugee camp, my brothers and I often rolled up a sock to make a soccer ball. My family did not like that I was a girl playing soccer with the boys, or playing soccer at all.

I was always outgoing. I learned English fairly quickly watching “Barney & Friends” and “Sesame Street.” I used to joke with my friends, saying I learned English through my friends from the street. I can be a little corny sometimes, but I am very playful.

I love connecting with folks, sharing my experiences, my strength and hope. Sharing information is so important, and that means bringing ourselves to a place of humility and love.

When I came to Minnesota, I lied to my mom about playing soccer and basketball. I would say, “I’m studying,” but I was really at basketball practice. Those little lies and differences of culture manifested in my life early as a teenager. When I had a daughter, I made sure she played sports and I was driving her to every game. I have always felt like I had to fight to be equal to men in my community, starting with my brothers.

My addiction started at the age of 23 when I was a single parent living away from my family. Before that, I was a single parent in high school and I was going through issues that led to my alcoholism. I started drinking in college with friends. I remember the first time I ever drank, I felt this sense of power, this relief. I could fit in and talk to people. I could dance. I felt like a whole new person. From then on, I was drinking every weekend, hanging out with friends and going clubbing.

I did not know how to balance this newfound freedom that I had. Addiction came with lying to my mom and my family. This sense of guilt and shame put me in a hole that kept getting bigger. I started experiencing depression, anxiety, a lot of different emotions, and I did not know how to deal with it. I would drink to get over those feelings.

My recovery started in 2009 after I went to treatment. My counselor was 35 years sober. She was helping us figure out our lives, and I realized that was something I wanted to do. When I graduated from treatment and came back home, I enrolled in school to become an addiction counselor. I graduated in 2012 and worked in programs to help women, especially women with children.

At that time, I was still going to my own recovery meetings, but after being in the recovery field for six years, I stopped taking care of my own recovery. I got burnt out and my symptoms started to come back. I was spiritually bankrupt. I did not have faith in myself, and I did not have a relationship with God.

One of the nights I was under the influence, I was seen by somebody I used to work with. The shame made me want to crawl into a hole and I went into a downward spiral. My addiction continued for many years. I hit rock bottom. I almost died.

I isolated myself from every person that cared for me. I hid, I made excuses not to come to events, I missed appointments. That isolation was the root cause of addiction for me.

It is my faith in God that saved me, and kept saving me. I found recovery again and I got my power back. I could look in the mirror and embrace my hijab. I returned to my roots, my culture, and my traditions. I got over my shame and my guilt and put myself out there so the whole community could see that recovery is possible for a Muslim woman.

During my recovery after relapse, I began working at Minnesota Recovery Connection as a peer recovery specialist. During the pandemic, there was an epidemic of opioid overdoses in the U.S. Many people from my community overdosed. There was a funeral every weekend. The community was shocked and did not know how to respond.

After seeing a need for education and outreach around addiction, Niyyah Recovery Initiative was born to serve one of the most marginalized and underserved communities in Minnesota. We help people understand that substance use disorders are a brain disease, and that recovery is possible. Stigma and shame exist in all communities, but they are very complex and heightened in my community because alcohol and drugs are forbidden in Islam.

Niyyah means “intention” in Arabic. Having intention makes the process of recovery more meaningful, connected with your higher self.

Our volunteers meet people where they are at, literally. We go into homes, speak with moms who are struggling with addiction, or have kids who are struggling. Mothers are able to relate to my story and what I have gone through. I also look like them, so that trust is there. We have a conversation with the whole family in their language. We share our recovery stories and let them know how to get into treatment. After a person graduates from treatment, we continue to work with them so they do not fall through the cracks.

That first step you take towards the door out of a treatment center is when your recovery starts. You might be going back to school, to the mosque, to doctor’s appointments, to mental health appointments.

Treatment is not recovery. I think it is important for folks across Minnesota to understand that those are two different categories.

People have reached out to me internationally from Somalia, Dubai, Malaysia, and Canada as well as across the U.S., where there are large East African communities who want to start a recovery meeting. I talk about the Islamic principles of recovery, and how those were able to help me reconnect with Allah through my repentance process. I am firm in my faith and spirituality today, and I get the courage to share my recovery story with the world through Allah.

Photo Sarah Whiting

When I tell my story, people will sometimes say, “Why are you talking about this? You were saved. You are a woman, you are supposed to count your blessings and not talk. You are bringing more shame to your family and kids.” I shake my head. No. That is what kept me sick: isolating and not talking. I recover out loud today to reduce that stigma in my community, and across all communities.

Not every problem needs a government solution. Our community fundraises every Friday. I have asked the mosque to help fundraise for Niyyah, and I was not very successful. I often think that if a man founded Niyyah, everyone in the community would have had his back, including the imams.

I have seen how mothers go to the imams for help with their child’s addiction. I want to help educate our imams so that they are able to understand addiction and help produce better outcomes.

To help people with substance use disorders we need stop seeing each other as competition, to build trust in the community. I think this is important for our coming generations. A lot of youth are losing their language, their culture, and they are assimilating at a higher rate to Western culture in negative ways.

We do not need another mosque in Minnesota, we need a youth center. We need a space where folks can come and feel welcome, no matter what. This could be a place where women can exercise freely. Youth can experience mentorship programs, grief counseling, peer-to-peer recovery. People can have iftar dinners — kids, moms, elders, fathers. A big gym. It is my dream.

Addiction manifested in my life spiritually, physically, and mentally. I was able to get out of that, and I did not do this alone. None of it would have been possible without God. People do not recover by themselves; we recover with others.

Farhia Budul is currently recruiting members for Niyyah’s board of directors. To learn more, contact farhia.budul@niyyahrecovery.org.