Tell us about your immigration story.
Despite my lonesome arrival upon the soil of this great country without the support of a tribe, secure knowledge of English or understanding of cultural norms, and knowing how to navigate the system, I managed to make the most of opportunities and create some of my own on my way to becoming the person I am today.
A refugee resettlement agency helped me during my first three months in Dallas, Texas. Texas was a tough place and far from my relatives and friends. I couldn’t see myself succeeding in Dallas, so I moved to Richmond, VA where I found a job at the University of Richmond also attending Virginia Commonwealth University. During my undergrad, I was able to volunteer with refugee resettlement organizations, American Red Cross as an interpreter, community resources navigator, and community disaster educator. I was selected for a cohort of 50 out of 1,000 student applicants nationwide to Oxfam America Change Leader and establish the first Oxfam America student club at VCU where I mobilized students to advocate for fair trade for coffee farmers and educated them about climate change and violence against women in Congo.
My desire to help refugees is what motivates me to go to the Columbia University School of Social Work and School of Public Health with a dual master’s degree in MSW/MPH from Columbia University School of Social Work and School of Public Health. My concentration was Population and Family Reproductive Health and Advanced Clinical Mental Health Practice with a focus on immigrant and refugee mental health and currently attending Harvard Global Mental Health: refugee trauma program.
In a few years, I went from a refugee in need of guidance and assistance to a leading voice amongst the refugee and immigrant community in the fight against health inequity serving those in need.
What are some of the challenges you've experienced as an essential worker during COVID?
I work with a community facing multiple problems including health disparity and information health disparity. This became evident during the COVID19 crisis. I wear many hats in the community and have played different roles in my organization. I work as a community health specialist three days a week where I do community health education, community resources navigator, capacity building, community organizing, and Adult Mental Health First aid. I am also working two days as a psychotherapist and providing one-on-one therapy to the refugee and immigrant community members who are struggling with mental illness.
During the COVID19 crisis, I was so fortunate to have an opportunity to do community check-in, follow up and educational calls. I was calling 20 to 30 people a day. Many of the people I called didn’t have basic knowledge about COVID19 or know how to take care of themselves in case they contracted diseases. Many refugees and immigrants live together as extended families in small housing accommodations which creates a lot of anxiety and fear that they won’t be able to find places to isolate themselves.
One major challenge is health information disparity. There is a lot of material out there in English about COVID-19, mental health, and many other health-related topics but there isn’t a lot of material that is in is Spanish or Somali. Almost all of them said that they didn’t have information and the only information they did get about COVID-19 was from word of mouth which may not be fully accurate. Through our phone outreach, our team was able to educate, provide resources with many immigrant and refugee communities in the Saint Cloud area.
What has been the greatest impact of COVID on the immigrant community in your city?
Immigrant and refugee communities are disproportionately affected by COVID19 due to poverty, lack of proper housing, health disparity, health information disparity, and fear government institutions. Many newcomers work in warehouses, grocery stores, gas stations, and other low pay jobs and they are vulnerable to contract the virus and economically impacted by the lockdown. Refugee and immigrant families with low incomes are struggling to pay their rent or to feed themselves. Refugee and immigrant small businesses are vital part of the community and economic fabric of Saint Cloud. Unfortunately, Covid19 hit many refugee and immigrant businesses who already were struggling to attract mainstream customers and to generate more revenue.
Many refugee and immigrant families are struggling with helping children with schoolwork due to language and technical barriers. Parents feel they do not have control over their children’s education and have a fear their children won’t be academically successful.
Many refugees and immigrants are facing uncertainty, fear, anxiety, movement restriction, fear of losing loved ones, isolation, fear of economic insecurity and stability, or even the fear of not having proper burials for loved ones. This is a trigger for them and creates mental health crises in the community. Most do not understand or have access to mental health services, despite often needing them due to a lack of information, not knowing how to navigate the system, and stigma that is often associated with mental illness. Many organizations, doctors’ offices, and social service agencies are closed, not accepting new clients, or are only offering telemedicine services, which, due to existing cultural, language, and technological barriers, leave many without care.
What message do you have for immigrant essential workers like yourself?
Many come from societies in which problem-solving occurs through community-based discussion and unity. As we know, these types of collectivist solutions and ways of coping are made impossible by social distancing and leaves them especially vulnerable to the ill-effects of isolation, re-traumatization, and fear of contracting COVID19 due to the nature of their work. Indeed, this fear and social distance can have a devastating effect on mental health.
It is a very difficult time and stress is so high so please pay attention to your emotions, feelings, and reaction to covid. Self-care and self-compassion are so important and vital to your overall wellness. There are different ways people can take care of themselves. Do whatever is work for you whether it’s prayers, meditation, dancing, walking, reaching out to friends or family. Our emotions have an impact on our actions and can even impact our physical well-being. Most importantly STAY CONNECTED
Know your rights and try to learn how to navigate not only within the healthcare system but also within the legal system. During the Covid many refugees and immigrants are having problems with their employees and landlords. I believe that it’s very important for people to know tenant law, employee rights, patient rights under HIPAA, and immigration law.
What gives you hope in hard times?
Engaging in meaningful work in the community always brightens my day. There is nothing better than getting up in the morning and knowing that you are making a difference in people’s lives whether it is youth who are struggling with mental illness and need comfort or someone who is going through domestic violence and seeking a safe environment or a parent who is desperate to find addiction treatment for their child. How can you be hopeless when you are the only hope to many people who are facing multiple problems that are beyond their control.
I believe that we find hope in others' progress, improvement, and success when we allow ourselves to see hope. It always gives me hope when people I work with regain their power and ability to change themselves and improve their lives.