Project seeks to help East African refugees find health care

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COLUMBIA - A program through MU Health Care and various community organizations is helping to bridge the gap between East African refugees and access to health care.

Kristin Sohl, Child Health Department Advocacy Director, said the project could have an important impact.

"We recently were awarded a grant that allowed us to expand our curriculum around advocacy training, and then also leverage some of that funding to do a small project," Sohl said. "That project was a partnership between many members of the community and specifically targets refugee families. In Columbia, we have quite a few refugee families particularly from East Africa. These families come to us having experienced significant trauma and many of the have a hard time interacting or accessing care through our health systems."

The grant will mainly be focused on helping East African refugee children by informing families on the best options for care.

Grant Coordinator Megan Gore said this group of children has a need for unique care.

"We're seeing that there's a large amount of stress among the children in any refugee population and there's not always enough clinicians specialized in dealing with those types of symptoms like PTSD, anxiety and depression in a culture they may have never experienced," Gore said.

Sohl said refugee families face a far different reality from that of average citizens.

"Many of us take for granted, the ease of access and understandings we have of child health," Sohl said. "When our child gets sick, we know where to go. When our child gets hurt, we know where to go. But, when you are transported literally from a different country under very traumatic circumstances into the middle of America, it is very overwhelming."

Sohl said many refugees struggle with the basics, like knowing where they can go in case of an emergency.

"What we've learned is that many of these families come here and don't know where to go," Sohl said. "They don't know about South Providence Pediatrics, they don't know about Tiger Pediatrics, they don't know whether to go to urgent care or the emergency room."

Many East African children frequent Granny's House, an after school program aimed at nurturing children in public housing. Granny's House founder Pam Ingram said the amount of refugee children in Columbia has only increased over the years.

"At Granny's House they started coming maybe 9 or 10 years ago, and since that time our enrollment has transitioned to being about 70-80 percent refugee children," Ingram said.

MU Health said the grant will be able to impact around 100 refugee children, coming from Eritrean, Somalian, Congolese and Ethiopian communities in Columbia.

Ingram said most people don't know the kind of hardships many of these children have been through.

"We all look at people's lives through the lens that we have," Ingram said. "Our lens is formed by our education, our culture, our upbringing, our parents and I think it's critical that not just doctors, but everyone really understand what some of these kids have been through."

Sohl said this program would help bridge the gap many refugees often confront when seeking care.

"What we felt like was important was to get our child health residents up to speed," Sohl said. "So when a child or family came to them from a refugee community our residents were equipped and ready to be culturally sensitive and culturally appropriate with those families."

Ingram said bringing these two groups together is important to developing a relationship of understanding.

"If you grew up in a village, and you have not gone to a doctor in your native country, it'd be kind of a scary place," Ingram said. "They all have these white coats and everyone looks so serious. So anything you can do to bring them together in a social, non-intimidating setting would be really good."

Sohl said the early components of the project will be a "lend-and-learn" library where families can check out developmentally appropriate toys for children to use, and informal meetings between East African refugee families and health care providers.