Turning Trauma into Resilience for Oakland’s Vibrant Community

By Giving List Staff   |   November 2, 2021
Some CERI staff gather for a meeting in the park. CERI staff represent 15 native languages.

When a flood of Afghan refugees began arriving in the Bay Area this fall, their plight was immediately understood by many Cambodian-Americans who had fled their own country 40 years before.

“Many of our clients’ first thought was, ‘How can we help?’” says Mona Afary, founder and director of the Oakland-based Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI). Afary, an immigrant from Iran with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, launched CERI 16 years ago to address the ongoing traumatic effects of the Cambodian genocide. CERI clients know, Afary says, that “if they had been offered mental health services upon resettlement, they wouldn’t have suffered this kind of severe depression and PTSD, and could have mitigated multigenerational trauma.” 

CERI began with a handful of support groups for Cambodian refugees, who found in each other’s company a sense of joy and hope that had been flattened by isolation and PTSD. Since then, CERI has developed a community-based, trauma-informed model of care – integrating Western and Eastern therapeutic models with the ethos and wisdom of Cambodian culture. The organization has expanded to serve the needs of immigrants and refugees from 15 countries mostly throughout Asia, with native language staff, to provide: multilingual family and individual counseling, psychiatric services, youth and teen support groups and activities, weekly adult support groups, workforce development programs, community resource referrals, elder activities, food and rent assistance, a community garden project, and other wellness programs. The twin scourges of COVID and anti-Asian violence have expanded the need for their services. During the pandemic, CERI increased its food support, serving 56,000 free lunches in the last year alone.

The good news, according to the CERI team, is that the effects of trauma due to violence and genocide have been “significantly reduced” for those who receive the kinds of services offered at CERI. Part of the secret sauce is the sense of community that CERI co-creates with their clients, who see the East Oakland office as a kind of sanctuary, where they can take off their shoes, eat and chat, do yoga, and let go of the troubles outside the door. The CERI model also involves promoting self empowerment, and helping communities support each other. 

The troubles that vexed CERI’s community elders were those of their children — and now grandchildren. It was these clients who expressed the great need to assist their youngest. CERI responded with extensive youth programming, support groups, outdoor activities, garden work, and support to those threatened with, and who already have faced, deportation. Youth who have come up with the CERI community have been empowered to stay in school, leave gangs and other high risk activities, and are now major contributors to our community. 

Thavery, a CERI staff member, describes growing up in a home and neighborhood plagued by crime and alcoholism. A low point came when she was arrested for shoplifting as a teenager. Her parents, unsure how to help, did what many local Cambodian families did when they were out of ideas: “They took me right to CERI,” Thavery says. Once there, at the age of 14, she got involved in the youth programs, where everyone calls each other “cousin.” She is now studying for a degree in Criminal Justice, and as a CERI staff member plays a critical role in assisting elders and mentoring youth. 

The need for CERI’s programs will only grow, especially with their forthcoming expansion to serve the large numbers of incoming Afghan refugees who are in need of mental health services and care management. CERI staff know they have the support of their longtime clients, who also want to contribute to healing in some way and make a difference. This, in turn, is part of the cycle of healing.


Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants

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(510) 684-7386
Community Engagement and Development Director: Mona Afary


Our mission is to improve the social, emotional, psychological, economic, and physical health of refugees and immigrants

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As CERI’s Community Programs Coordinator, I work with elders in weekly support groups, community service projects, and cultural field trips. CERI has been a healing place for me, as a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and years in refugee camps. Through helping to provide healing to the community, I have largely healed myself.
Sophal Yin

Uplifting Underprivileged Refugee Youth

Recognizing that trauma, suffered by adult refugees and immigrants who have lived through genocide and resettlement, is often passed down through generations, CERI developed a comprehensive array of youth programming.

The nonprofit’s programming has ended the cycle of trauma for countless refugee and immigrant youths in the East Bay, and across generations, through its innovative and holistic approaches to healing.

You can support CERI’s work to heal generational trauma in many ways:

–$100: supplies CERI’s youth after-school program with three volunteer tutors, and snacks for afternoon programming for one month.  

–$500: provides for two outdoor experiences for CERI’s Youth Green Jobs program.

– $1,000: provides two months of trauma-informed weekly group therapy for survivors of trauma and violence.

–$5,000: helps provide for case management and mental health provision for the Afghan refugee community, and funds utility and food subsidies. 

Key Supporters

The William and Flora Hewlett
Alameda County Behavioral Health
Care Services
New Breath Foundation
Magic Cabinet
Devata Giving Circle
Kaiser Permanente
Korean Community Center
of the East Bay
Asian Health Services
Archstone Foundation
Asian Law Caucus
Sierra Foundation
Golden Gate National Parks
California Arts Council