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Health Fair For Refugees In Arizona Seeks To Earn Trust, Improve Health Outcomes

Since 1975, Arizona has been home to more than 85,000 refugees. The state consistently ranks in the top 10 for refugee populations, and in 2016, Arizona took in 5% of all refugees who resettled in the United States. Refugees have access to public health services, but many are unsure of what is available to them.

Language and cultural barriers can make health care a nightmare for refugees, who often face difficulty navigating the complex American system.

That’s why Jeanne Nizigiyimana co-founded the Refugee Women's Health Clinic at Valleywise Health, which holds health fairs for refugees.

"I'm educated, I'm privileged, because at least I'm able to understand and read, and perhaps navigate complex services," Nizigiyimana said. "For refugees, having a language barrier added to cultural issues and cultural differences makes a huge disconnect between who they are and the health care providers who are around the Valley."

Nizigiyimana and her team of cultural health navigators coordinate care for immigrants and refugees who arrive in Maricopa County. They set up interpreters who can convey messages in a culturally acceptable way. She says it's designed to help health care workers earn the trust of the refugee community.

"This is an opportunity for mainstream resource providers and other health care providers here at Valleywise Health to be able to showcase the services and what is available to eligible beneficiaries," she said. "Knowledge is power, and here we are engaging actively to address preventative health."

Many refugees put off preventative care, which can lead to more acute health issues. At Saturday's health fair, refugees could have their blood pressure and blood sugar tested. They could set up dental and eye exams and meet with social service providers.

"When refugees first come here, they are terrified of the health system we have here," Aarzoo Kumar, a member of the Refugee Education and Clinic Team (REACT), said. "We work on building that trust. It starts by us attending their events and getting to know their community leaders. By building that trust, we are allowing them to accept the western medicine that we have."

Nizigiyimana says accessing health care is an important step in refugee integration into American society.

"We understand that any effort to address them is key as they prepare themselves to integrate and become productive contributors to this country," she said. "It's their (country) now."

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Scott Bourque was a reporter and podcast producer at KJZZ from 2019 to 2022.