How a Lansing Agency is Helping Refugees Take Charge of Their Health

Julie Bitely

| 3 min read

Black and white picture of the Statue of Liberty
If you arrived in a new country with no understanding of the language or culture, would you be able to make a life there? For the 65 million refugees in the world, half of them children, that’s reality. A refugee is defined as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.” For men, women and children faced with leaving the only home they’ve ever known, persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in certain social groups may make it unsafe to return. In 2016, of the tiny percentage of total worldwide refugees who resettled in the United States, 908 made their way to the Lansing area, with the help of St. Vincent Catholic Charities Refugee Services. People from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and various other locales are working to understand their new home and its customs, the language, how to deal with transportation and employment, as well as other benchmarks on the path toward becoming self-sufficient. Helping them navigate routine and complex health care appointments is a small team of case manager assistants employed by St. Vincent, capable of translating 18 languages. All new arrivals to the Lansing area undergo a standard health assessment as well as routine vaccinations through the Ingham County Health Department. A Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation grant, which supplies $50,000 over two years, will extend a program currently funded by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund to work with those refugees who find they need care beyond their initial appointments, whether for chronic conditions or an ongoing need. Case manager assistants teach refugees how to set up appointments, how to get to and from their doctor’s office, how to request translation services and how to pick up prescriptions. They also translate during the appointment and even provide follow-up sessions with family members to instruct them on recovery care when necessary. “Even if they know the language, it’s difficult for them to understand all this,” said Fatuma Abdi, a case manager assistant who resettled in the U.S. from Somalia in 2001. “That’s why we’re there to help them.”
Case manager assistants Fatuma Abdi and Zeferino Bigirimana help refugees resettling in mid-Michigan manage their health care appointments. When Zeferino Bigirimana arrived in the U.S. from Burundi in 2007 he didn’t have someone to help him the way he’s able to help others as a case manager assistant. For those feeling overwhelmed, he points to his own success in adjusting to let them know that they’ll make it and they’ll be okay here. “We educate them (about) how they can survive in this country,” he said. Judi Harris, Director of Refugee Services at St. Vincent, said the work case manager assistants are doing goes way beyond simple translation. They break down cultural barriers, serve as confidants for their clients and are trusted resources for doctors who are trying to ensure their patients understand their diagnosis and course of treatment. For refugees who’ve been through so much to get here in some cases, Abdi said building trust is a critical part of the work she does. Seeing someone get to a point of independence, with confidence in their abilities to function successfully in society, is the most rewarding part of her job. “When the clients are happy, it makes me happy,” she said. If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
Photo credit: Jörg Schubert
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