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Samoan Community Looks to Itself to Help Elderly Deal With Fears


Over and over since last spring's riots, Chief Tua'au Pele Faletogo keeps hearing the same thing from elderly people in the South Bay's Samoan community.

They fear street crime. They fear people who are not Samoan. They fear dying violent deaths.

"One old man said 'I don't want to die like a dog,' " said Faletogo, whose title of chief is ceremonial on the mainland United States but marks him as an important community leader in American Samoa, a South Pacific island.

"A lot of people do not want to come out of the house. They are literally locking themselves in," he said.

Faletogo and 21 other members of the South Bay's Samoan community took a major step this week to solve the problem. They graduated from a peer-counseling course aimed at easing community anxiety caused by the civil unrest.

With food, prayers and traditional Samoan songs, about 70 people gathered Wednesday at a community center in Carson for the ceremony honoring the graduates of the 10-week course.

Using funds from a $3.8-million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health organized the training after officials discovered there were no Samoan mental health professionals in the area.

That deficit was alarming because many in the Samoan community have felt anger and resentment over the perceived lack of concern for their problems and anxiety in the wake of the riots, said Joyce Fienberg, the project coordinator.

"Samoans are a minority within a minority," Fienberg said. "They are hidden because their numbers are so small, yet they are experiencing a tremendous amount of anger and anxiety. They feel invisible, that the system is ignoring them."

According to the 1990 Census, there were 11,934 Samoans living in Los Angeles County, primarily in Carson, Compton and Long Beach. There are 31,917 Samoans living in California, almost as many as the 46,773 who live on the island of American Samoa.

Many people in the Samoan community believe that their small numbers and cultural differences often mean their concerns are overlooked, Fienberg said.

There is lingering resentment over a Superior Court judge's decision in June not to retry a Compton police officer in the shooting death of two Samoan brothers during a domestic dispute at their home. The original trial ended in a hung jury.

The peer-counseling program is seen as a means to help people in the Samoan community to cope with their feelings.

By focusing on the older people, the graduates said they hope to take a step toward cooling emotions among all Samoans. Elderly Samoans have great influence in the community but are often the most alienated by language and cultural barriers.

They agreed that since the riots, older members have refused to venture outside for fear of being killed. The isolation is particularly worrisome because the elderly must get out of the house to adapt to life in the Los Angeles area.

While they will not give psychiatric advice, they will offer clients an opportunity to talk to someone about their feelings in their own language, someone who can refer them to various agencies if they have serious problems, Fienberg said.

But in addressing the problem, counselors must deal with cultural considerations.

"They are not afraid of death," Faletogo explained. "But they are afraid of dying on the street. We have a saying: Wherever you go, you will be a mount in front of your home. What that means is you can come here to live, but when you are ready to die you go back home. That's what Samoans fear--that they will die before they make the decision to go back and die a natural death."

The graduates from the 10-week program, which was conducted in Samoan and English, will find their clients through senior citizen groups, community centers and word of mouth.

The 22 will be paid, but Fienberg said she was not sure how much because promised grant money from FEMA has not yet been received.

The graduates, however, do not look on their duties as a job.

"I just wanted to help my people," said Lily Siofele, a paralegal in Downey for a lawyer with numerous Samoan clients. "The people in the community are happy to have this program because for many years they did not know where to go for this kind of help."

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