San Diego police shooting victim was Grieving Death of Ethiopian friend

Alfred Olango is pictured with his friend, Bereket, whose funeral was held the day after his fatal shooting.

By Jean Guerrero | KPBS

The mother of Alfred Olango, an unarmed Ugandan refugee who was fatally shot by El Cajon police, said her son did not have a history of mental illness.

Pamela Benge said Olango was having an emotional breakdown during his encounter with police, due to the recent death of a close friend named Bereket Demsse.

Then on Friday, 31-year-old Bereket Demsse, A boyhood friend and fellow African refugee, suddenly died.

"He was just so depressed," said Vicky Ellis, Olango's former girlfriend, who spoke with him last weekend. "I'd never heard him so upset."

Demsse was buried Wednesday afternoon - less than 24 hours after Olango's death.

“He couldn’t handle it, he was just running around,” she said. “He needed someone to calm him down … not to come and just finish his life.”

Jama Mohamed, program coordinator for “Making Connections For Mental Health,” which seeks to improve the well-being of East Africans in San Diego, said Olango showed signs of mental illness that are not uncommon in East African refugees.

“There may be mental health services already, but in terms of being culturally appropriate, it’s not there,” he said.

Mohamed works with United Women of East Africa to connect immigrants and refugees from East Africa with services to reduce depression, suicidal tendencies and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mohamed said East African immigrants often have a history of exposure to trauma. Even if they didn’t experience war in their home countries firsthand, they struggle with the stress of the loved ones who did.

He said this trauma often manifests as mental illness when combined with other environmental stressors such as police discrimination or the death of a relative, especially in men.

Mohamed said he thinks Olango may have suffered a nervous breakdown during his encounter with police due to a combination of fear, previous traumas and grief from the death of his friend.

“To deal with the loss of a loved one or somebody who’s friends with you, to not have that trust with authority or police creates a lot of stress,” Mohamed said.

The funeral of Olango’s friend took place Wednesday, a day after Olango was killed.

Mohamed said East African men with mental illness rarely seek professional help because they don’t trust U.S. psychiatric institutions. Neither they nor their family members see mental health symptom such as hallucinations as medical problems. Some of them see them as having spiritual or supernatural causes.

As a result, they don’t believe pharmaceuticals will help them.

Mohamed said police and mental health professionals in San Diego County need to work more closely with the East African community to develop culturally appropriate response strategies and services. His organization is attempting to create that bridge for now.

“People should not be criminalized for being mentally ill,” he said.

Other immigrants who were fatally shot by police in San Diego County while experiencing episodes of psychosis or other mental illness include Afghanistan refugee Fridoon Rawshawn Nehad in 2015 and Burmese refugee Ja Ma Lo Day in 2014.