Refugees with disabilities and chronic health issues are a hidden population in the Chicagoland area, resulting in numerous barriers to proper health care and social services, panelists at an Access Living town hall meeting said Wednesday night.
The town hall served as a safe space for refugees with disabilities to share their challenges since being resettled in Chicago.
It was also the official launch of a collaborative policy brief that highlights the problem and offers more than a dozen solutions crafted by Access Living, Northwestern University’s Institute for Healthcare Studies and other partners.
Marca Bristo, president and CEO of Access Living, which advocates for the rights of disabled people, said the goal of the brief is to “lift the veil” from the invisible community.
“We have to do much more here in this country to make the rights that they should have on par and to equal to the rights of all citizens in this country,” Bristo said, adding that the brief is a “small step” in the right direction.
Refugees with disabilities face a “double whammy,” she said.
“They are hidden both in the community at large, but often even within their own communities,” Bristo said.
Since 1975, Illinois has admitted more than 145,000 refugees, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services.
Nationally, more than 56,000 refugees were admitted in the country in 2011, the report reads.
It’s not known how many refugees in America are impacted by disability, mental illness and chronic health conditions because that information is not recorded on the national level, the brief reads.
The top three countries with refugees coming to the United States in 2011 were Burma, Bhutan and Iraq.
One Iraqi refugee named Bashir, who’s lived in Chicago for three years, spoke to the nearly 60 people who attended the town hall through an interpreter.
He has hemophilia, a bleeding disorder that prevents his blood from clotting quickly. One cut and he could bleed to death, he said.
Bashir, who asked that his last name not be included, said his medication coverage is set to expire at the end of the year, he has no medical insurance and he’s been rejected twice for disability benefits from the state. He’s waiting to hear back after applying for a third time.
“I’ve become increasingly tired, and I need help,” he said through his interpreter.
The policy brief identifies different levels of barriers that restrict equal health services for refugees in the state.
For example, language-appropriate mental health services in Illinois are severely limited, few medical specialists accept public health insurance and refugee resettlement service providers are not always well versed in health and disability issues.
Steve Brunton, director of the Chicago-based National Refugee Network that works with the refugee mutual assistant associations (MAA) in Chicago, said most of the associations typically have small staffs.
“They can quickly become overwhelmed by a variety of requests before you even get to disability issues,” Brunton said.
A big issue in all refugee communities is mental health, he added.
“None of the MAAs are able to adequately address it, and the problem is the frontline workers end up being unlicensed therapists,” Brunton said.
The MAA clients should be going to see a professional, he said, but because of the stigma around mental health, most of the refugees wont admit to having a mental health issue.
Refugees often don’t know how to navigate the U.S. health care and social service systems, according to the brief.
Most refugees have limited English, which compounds the challenges they face while trying to seek help.
The brief was based on research and interviews conducted in the Chicago metropolitan area, but the issues are also found in other parts of the country that receive refugees.
Alison Neibauer, medical case manager with World Relief DuPage, added during the panel discussion that there are inadequate health and social service resources for refugees with chronic illness in the suburbs of Illinois.
The report offers some solutions such as collecting accurate data on incoming refugees with disabilities and chronic conditions, standardizing health-screening tools to incorporate disability and mental health while also expanding the pool of trained medical interpreters.
The refugees’ eight-month period of eligibility for public medical insurance is “inadequate” and should be increased, the report adds.