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Helping refugees navigate health care proxies, power of attorney

During a recent workshop, Erin L. Riker handed Mon Gotamy a manila envelope – an envelope filled with documents proving that the people taking care of Gotamy hold the legal authority and proof that goes along with it to make decisions, sign papers and handle her money on her behalf.

"Thank you," Gotamy, 66, said, pressing her hands together in thanks.

Gotamy just completed the process of designating her son, Hem, 26, with power of attorney and as her health care proxy through a program by the Center for Elder Law and Justice.

Gotamy and her family are from Bhutan but lived in refugee camps in Nepal for decades before they were granted asylum in the U.S. seven years ago. Gotamy, like many older Bhutanese refugees, speaks little English. She also never went to school. That makes it difficult for her to do her banking and deal with Social Security and health care.

Bir Tamang participates in a presentation about power of attorney and health care proxies by attorney Erin Riker of the Center for Elder Law and Justice at the Hope Refugee Drop-In Center, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

To assist resettled refugees like Gotamy and other new Americans, the center teaches them about the power of attorney and health care proxy designations, reinforces the importance of selecting a trusted loved one for the designations and helps them fill out the necessary paperwork. It's a free service.

Having to deal with certified signatures and privacy laws can be baffling to new immigrants, who are used to being allowed to send their child or grandchild to the bank for them or to speak for them, Riker said.

"It may not have been part of their legal framework," Riker said.

Riker, with the help of interpreters, held two workshops at Jericho Road Community Health Center's Hope Refugee Drop-In Center on West Ferry Street this month. Two weeks ago, the workshop was centered on Karen refugees and a interpreter worked with Riker. The classroom where the workshop was held was so packed they had to bring in extra chairs. Last Friday's was for refugees from Nepal.

More than two dozen people, mostly older Bhutanese refugees, filled the room. Wearing winter hats and puffy coats, they listened intently to the presentation.

"You want to choose someone who you really trust," Riker told them. "This person could be making medical decisions for you."

Anyone interested could sign up – almost all said they would – and a Nepali speaker would reach out to them to set up appointments. Each client would come in to meet with the attorneys at the center to figure out what powers they'd like to give to their designated loved ones. The center then drafts the documents and the client returns to review them, Riker explained. The multistep process is designed to make sure the client understands what's going on.

Kiran Tiwari, a case worker at the Drop-In Center, helped lead the workshop with Riker, speaking in Nepali.

A resettled refugee himself, Tiwari's father recently went through the process to designate Tiwari as his power of attorney and to be his health care proxy.

"We do have a lot of issues with older parents," Tiwari said. "They don't speak English. They don't understand. They can't read."

Caseworker Kiran Tiwari interprets as immigrants from Bhutan and Nepal participate in a presentation about power of attorney and health care proxy by an attorney from the Center for Elder Law and Justice at the Hope Refugee Drop-In Center. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

They're also frail after living under harsh conditions for decades in refugee camps. Bringing them to banks and government offices is difficult. Now, Tiwari said, he can handle such errands on behalf of his dad while his dad stays comfortably at home.

"This document is very important," Tiwari said. "It gave me the power to speak on behalf of my father."

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