Refugee Families Keep America Great

My health center, Alvernon Family Medicine, in the heart of Midtown Tucson is surrounded by vibrant communities from around the world.  Our physicians, nurse practitioners, residents, nurses and staff pride ourselves as the medical home for a diverse patient population, with as many as a quarter of our patient visits made by individuals and families who came to this country as refugees from war-torn regions of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.  While we struggle with visits prolonged by translator phones and managing the health needs in resource-challenged communities, we know we provide great care to many who refer more from their community to us day after day.


As I listen to the vitriol from the highest levels of our government — painting refugees as dangerous and taking advantage of us — my patients I’ve cared for over the last two years prove the opposite.  They’ve reminded me of how lucky I am to be an American, our role in ensuring human rights for families that have fled their homes for a second chance at life, and how they keep America great.


I think of the Muslim family that speaks Kinyarwanda.  I remember the appointment over two years ago where I was so relieved — a small victory for me that afternoon — when the local refugee agency found an in person translator to come to that visit.  She sat there with me, my 13 year old patient, and his mother and father, when I disclosed the imaging results that showed a serious brain tumor.  Now 15, I see his name on my schedule in two weeks.  I coordinate care between his oncologist and neurosurgeon who adjusts his VP shunt that manages his headaches and allows him to stay in school.


I think of the 60-something Nepali woman whose three children take turns bringing her to our visits.  She is basically mute, in a wheelchair most of the time due to weakness, and her family shares in her care.  With no objective findings and having received no health care in her home country, we don’t know if this if from head trauma when their homes were destroyed, a mental health condition, or something else.  Thanks to our medical-legal partnership, we were able to get her an exemption from citizenship tests so she could remain in our country with her family.


I think of the Somali girl who I saw for her 4 year well child visit last year.  She was dressed in a hijab, as was her older sister and mother, a stark contrast from my own daughter, also 4 years old, who I had just dropped off to preschool dressed in her favorite bright blue string strap dress.  The girl spoke some English, and we connected over the Big Hero 6 fist bump, and she wouldn’t stop talking about Doc McStuffins, one of my daughter’s favorites at the time, and how she wanted to be a doctor too.


I think of my patient from Iraq, in his 50s, here in this country alone, unshaven and poorly dressed, who limps with a cane in one hand, his other hand gripping our clinic’s cordless phone with the Arabic translator on the other end.  During our visits I rarely get to discuss his diabetes control as we struggle to address his PTSD from his time as a victim of torture.  We struggle to arrange resources for transportation and other services for him to obtain mental health counseling.


I’m not certain if, before coming to Tucson nearly 2 and a half years ago, I have provided care to refugee families in the past.  I must have, as refugee families are integrated into communities throughout our nation.  I do know, however, that I’ve learned not only so much about the needs and struggles that refugees have faced, but about the amazing contributions they make to our neighborhoods and communities: opening business like the local African market where I can grab imported foods for my family; patrolling our neighborhoods and keeping us safe; building vibrant communities that make us stronger.


I see them come here with nothing but the clothes on their back, and I see America, a truly great nation, do the right thing and welcome them into our country with financial support, community groups, housing, health insurance, and more.


I’m so very proud to have our refugee families as part of my community here in Tucson, provide care for them as their family physician, and call them my fellow Americans.


America’s great lady says it best:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


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