Flint, MI—Sam Jawhari lost his daughter, Briona, to a heroin overdose over a decade ago. His voice still catches as he speaks about finding her unconscious on Valentine’s Day 2011.

Briona, 17 years old at the time, had just moved back into her family’s home in January of that same year, after she had called Jawhari saying she was ready to stop using drugs.

“I said Briona, honey, my house is always open to you,” Jawhari, owner of Beirut Restaurant and Grocery in the Flint Farmers Market, recalled in late April 2022. “But you know, we’ve got to protect your brothers.”

Just weeks later, Jawhari discovered his daughter in her bedroom after an apparent overdose. 

He called 9-1-1—a recording that has been played during his talks to Genesee County students in the years since—and tried to save his daughter’s life to no avail.

“After she died, I mean, I was really struggling,” Jawhari said of the months following Briona’s overdose. “I had a hard time even getting out of bed. My wife, she came to me, she says, ‘You know, I know you’re struggling. We’re all struggling. But … I need my husband to come back. I need you. Our boys need you.” 

So Jawhari slowly took action to heal. 

He sought therapy, which he admits he didn’t like, and eventually began hosting discussions about his experience and the across Genesee County schools—something he plans to start doing again at Lake Fenton High School on May 6 at 8 p.m. 

Briona Jawhari (Photo courtesy Sam Jawhari)

“You would never think that this is happening, but it’s happening in your home,” he said. “It’s happening at your neighbor’s. It’s happening in your community.”

Jawhari stopped speaking publicly about his daughter’s passing years ago, but he said he felt called by God to take up the discussion again given the rise in opioid-related deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic and the continuing stigma of talking about it.

“People are embarrassed that it’s going on, so they keep it hush-hush,” Jawhari said. “But we can’t deal with a problem until we get it out and try to solve it.”

According to the Michigan System for Opioid Overdose Surveillance (SOS), which offers near real-time mapping of non-fatal and fatal overdose cases in the state, there have been 3,029 suspected fatal opioid overdoses in Michigan since Jan. 1, 2021. 

In 2020 alone, according to provisional data not parsed for opioid-specific deaths, the state saw 2,738 overdose deaths, representing an increase of nearly 400 from the year prior.

And Genesee County, where Jawhari plans to concentrate his speaking engagements, matches that upward trend. 

In 2019, Genesee County reported 138 opioid overdose deaths, up from 70 the year Jawhari’s daughter passed away. And, as of April 25, 2022, SOS estimates there have been 278 fatal overdoses in Genesee County since the start of 2021. 

“Don’t wait till it’s at your doorstep, because sooner or later is going to be there,” cautioned Jawhari, who said he hoped to have a more “town hall-style” discussion at his May 6 talk. 

The local entrepreneur said he understands the sensitivity of the topic he’ll be addressing, but he hopes to see everyone from sixth graders to adults in the crowd that night.

“By us talking about it, we did make a lot of difference,” Jawhari said of his prior presentations. “I feel God is calling me back to do this.”

Jawhari’s talk will be held in Lake Fenton High School’s auditorium (4070 Lahring Rd., Linden, Mich.) on May 6 at 8 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

If you or someone you know is looking for substance use treatment options, resources are available through Genesee Health Services and the Greater Flint Health Coalition or by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....