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Health Summit helps in understanding the refugee experience in Buffalo

If longtime Western New York residents were to walk a week in the shoes of their new immigrant neighbors finding refuge in several Buffalo neighborhoods, what would they experience?

“They would immediately experience culture shock, anxiety, and potential grief at being in a new, unfamiliar place,” Jessica Scates said this week as she and Dr. Kim Griswold sat down to talk about the third annual WNY Refugee Health Summit next weekend. “If you’re born in America, live in America and have never been anywhere else, you’re used to the way things are,” Scates said. “Our daily woes are that our cellphone died and we can’t get in touch with someone, or the car breaks down.”

Forget that. “These people have been hungry,” Griswold said. “Have had to flee with children on their backs. Have left people behind. Have lost people in war. Have seen violence. Have been raped to get to America. Been trafficked. I’m generalizing, but many of them have undergone some pretty unendurable things and yet they have endured to get to a place where there’s safety and they can have a better life and education for their families, a place where they can make a difference. That’s what drives them.”

Scates and Griswold are co-organizers of the summit.

Griswold, 65, is a UB associate professor of family medicine, psychiatry and public health and health professions, as well as medical director of UB Family Medical at LakeShore Behavioral Health on the West Side.

Scates, 30, of North Buffalo, spent 3½ years in Senegal with the Peace Corps before coming to Western New York in 2012. She and her husband, Mamadou Sall, a native of Senegal, have a daughter, Fatoumata, 2, and are expecting their second child in June. Scates is coordinator of Global Health Initiatives, based in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions and administrative coordinator of the Community for Global Health Equity, an “audacious” university-wide effort whose mission is to improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable, including those in Western New York.

Many of the new Buffalo residents are dealing with post-traumatic stress, as well as language barriers and other issues that confronted most first-generation U.S. ancestors of current day residents in the region, the two women said. The summit is designed to gather those who look to help ease the transition and will take place from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Saturday in the UB Educational Opportunity Center, 555 Ellicott St. Keynote speaker is Issam Smeir, a mental health counselor who has worked around the world. Morning programs are free; the afternoon session costs $10, though scholarships are available. To register and for more info, visit

Q. What are the summit’s intentions and who should attend April 2?

Scates: We’re focused on one area of need: cultural competency and sensitivity, and culturally engaged care, specifically when one has experienced trauma. We’re following Issam Smeir’s talk with a panel session of people from Buffalo who have been successful in providing such care to patients or employees. And he will be leading a training in the afternoon that’s focused on conflict resolution across cultures. Everything’s available and open to the public. We just ask that people register.

Q. What is the Community for Global Health Equity? What is its mission locally and globally?

Scates: It’s one of three Communities of Excellence at UB and it’s focused on global health equity. One of the main areas is a “Local is Global” component. Within Global Health Equity, we can be of use to the community and provide resources, research, education and service support.

Q. Can you talk about the numbers, scope and dynamics in the WNY refugee population during the past decade?

Scates: About 1,300 to 1,500 refugees per year come into the region. It’s been about 15,000 over the last decade.

Griswold: Their care is distributed among four resettlement agencies so that no one is overwhelmed. Each agency provides similar services, although each agency has a specific specialty. The International Institute of Buffalo does a lot with victims of human trafficking and they do all the interpreter training for health and for court. Jewish Family Service focuses on mental health. Journey’s End Refugee Services focuses on legal matters, educational programs and microenterprise. And Catholic Charities does a lot of primary care and is very involved in a lot of community efforts. The regular things that all of them do for refugees is meet them at airports, teach them about money, shopping, health care, insurance. They set them up with housing and job searching and schedule them for primary care and specialty exam. Then there’s Vive La Casa, which is a shelter known across the nation and into Mexico. It houses up to 118 individuals – women, men and children – who are seeking asylum or are going to cross over the Canada because they have family there.

Q. What is the difference between a refugee, someone seeking asylum and an illegal immigrant?

Griswold: A refugee is here legally resettled through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. They are vetted overseas. There’s a whole process they go through. The Syrian refugees who are coming will go through that process. Asylum seekers come a different way. Either they get to the border with nothing and say they want asylum, or they come on student visas or work visas. These usually are individuals from countries at war who have witnessed violence, experienced violence who have been tortured. Refugees have often been tortured, as well, however many of the refugees we see have been in refugee camps. Most of the Burmese refugees have been in Thai refugee camps, some for up to 20 years. They are on a list to come to America and it can take that long for the family to go through all the processes to be allowed to come to America, so some of them have never known life but for a camp. Asylum seekers usually are coming out of freshly being displaces through war or some other form of violence.

Q. Where are the majority of refugees in the region coming from and where are they settling here? Why?

Scates: Most recently, they’re coming from Iraq, Somalia or Burma. We’ve got some Bhutanese-Nepali. There are several from the Democratic Republic of Congo and we’re going to be seeing some Syrian refugees, some who’ve already arrived and some who will be here in the next year or so. Within Buffalo, the West Side near Grant Street has a large population of refugees and that’s also been moving out to the Black Rock area and also on the East Side. It’s because there is property and apartments there at a reasonable cost, but also people are moving to where their other community members are located. If I come from Burma and know there’s a Burmese community off of Grant Street, I probably am going to want to move to a location there so I have “family,” and people who understand my culture and language.

Q. What tend to be the greatest health care needs and concerns when they arrive?

Griswold: Most of them are healthy, many of them are young. They have the same things that we have. Sometimes they have cholesterol problems as their diets change, diabetes, hypertension. Mental health issues, certainly in the newly resettled refugees, are quite high as they go through a period of acclimation, grief, a loss of their home, PTSD. Most providers work on a trauma-info
rmed basis. We see folks occasionally, mainly on the asylum-seeking side, who have been badly tortured and have scars or sometimes amputations because of that. Many women have been raped, either the asylum seekers or certainly in refugee camps, so there has to be some sensitivity to women’s health issues.

Q. What three things do you wish longtime residents of the region understood most about these refugees?

Griswold: That they are so resilient, these people who in some cases come across many oceans to get to a land of safety and promise of education for their children and work for them. They’ve endured many things to get here.

Scates: They’re our peers. As a peer, if you were to be in a war-torn situation and had to go to another country you’d want to be treated with respect, as an equal. It’s difficult because there’s that language barrier, but many come with high degrees, having been very successful in their own countries, so I think it’s important to see them as such.

Griswold: The other thing I’d like people to know is how much they do contribute to the Buffalo region. They bring such a wealth of knowledge here. Particularly in all of our health schools at UB – Pharmacy, Social Work, Medicine, Nursing, Public Health – they bring a new dimension to our trainees. Many of our health trainees are from different countries, so this enormous cultural diversity that refugees bring and our health trainees are involved in is incredibly empowering for people training in degrees in the health sciences.


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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