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Med School programs provide assistance for refugees

Refugee Health Clinic, BRYTE address healthcare, education needs of young refugees

By and
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 7, 2017

With the questionable future that many refugees in the United States face, the Alpert Medical School community is taking steps to provide resources and care for refugee children in Rhode Island.

The Refugee Health Clinic at Hasbro Children’s Hospital — led by Carol Lewis, associate professor of pediatrics and director of the clinic — is an important first stop for child refugees coming to Rhode Island.

Refugees often have difficulties accessing health care during their first year in the country, Lewis said.

“(The Refugee Health Clinic) is … unique in Rhode Island,” Lewis said. “We see (the refugees) for their initial evaluations, and they stay with us for their primary care.”

Half of Rhode Island’s refugees are children, Lewis said, adding that they all go through the clinic. These children often need more care than the clinic can provide. “What we do in a 20- to 30-minute visit here is a tiny drop in the bucket of what (the refugees) need out in the community to keep them healthy,” she added.

The children often arrive at the clinic with physical health problems, but “none of these kids are public health threats,” Lewis said, adding that “they are so vetted … and they have extensive medical exams” before being allowed into the country.

The major problems new refugees face include developmental issues and trauma. “I have a Syrian family with a nine-year-old kid who’s never been to school,” Lewis said. In recent years, the clinic has developed community health programs to help these refugees adjust to their new homes.

“One of the most exciting things that (has happened) recently is that we received a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation about a year ago to train community health workers,” Lewis said. These health workers help refugees navigate the health care system, which is often difficult due to language barriers and bureaucratic red tape, she added.

Lewis also advises Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment, a student group that provides one-on-one in-home tutoring for refugee children. “(In-home tutoring) is a wonderful model because, for a lot of refugee families, the costs to go elsewhere for tutoring are too expensive,” she said.

BRYTE was founded in 2006 as an undergraduate student group. It now pairs about 130 tutors from Brown with refugee students each year, and recently it moved from the Swearer Center for Public Service to the Med School, where it can “leverage the older age and life experience that (medical) school students have,” said VyVy Trinh ’11 MD’17, a tutor and former camp director for BRYTE.

“The tutoring is English language acquisition-focused,” Trinh said, adding that English proficiency is often what parents are most concerned about.

This tutoring is valuable because English proficiency and achievement in school are often the biggest predictors of success for refugee children, Lewis said.

Natalie Feinstein ’20, a BRYTE tutor, works with Kollali, a fifth-grade Eritrean refugee born in an Ethiopian refugee camp. Feinstein helps Kollali improve her English by working off some general guidelines and training provided by BRYTE, though she largely develops her own lessons. While Feinstein is only officially tasked with tutoring Kollali, she helps all five of Kollali’s siblings with their English as well, playing games and completing lessons with them.

The program stays with refugees beyond their first two years in the United States, which many organizations do not do, said Julia Chang ’18 MD’22, academic-year coordinator and summer camp director for BRYTE.

BRYTE also encourages “social advocacy in small ways,” Trinh said. Such advocacy can include guidance on applying to college, “mentoring and (developing) social-emotional literacy,” she added.

Chang, who tutors Monique, an eighteen-year-old refugee from Burundi, said she has developed a strong relationship with her tutee outside of an academic setting, spending time with her and even helping with her driving test. “She’s really amazing. … I’m so happy I’ve gotten to know her,” Chang said. “She’s so beautiful, so smart, really sarcastic and really knows herself.”

The program provides BRYTE tutors with many learning opportunities as well, Chang said. It’s a “bidirectional learning experience,” she added. “You’re not here to save someone.”

Though the Med School only recently took BRYTE under its wing, it has been supportive of the program for a long time, Chang said. In the past, the Med School has provided two grants for BRYTE’s summer camp, which hosted 106 refugees this past summer and is currently in the process of raising money for this year. “It felt like a really natural movement towards the Med School and … a model of acknowledging that health and education intersect in a lot of ways, especially for at-risk populations,” Chang added.

The advocacy that BRYTE and community health workers provide for refugees may become more important in the wake of President Trump’s executive order on immigration and future related policies, Lewis said. Besides continuing these efforts, “there’s not really anything that the medical community can do,” she said.

People who work with the refugee community saw the effects of the order firsthand. “I was really struck when … we had (incoming) kids lined up to be seen, and we got emails telling us that they couldn’t come,” Lewis said, adding that the children were four and five-year-olds. “That was kind of heartbreaking.”

But members of the refugee community have displayed a “remarkable sense of resilience,” Trinh said. “For many of those families I spoke with … (the executive order) was on their minds, but across the board they said, ‘We’re doing okay — so many Americans have been nice to us.’”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that VyVy Trinh ’11 MD’17 is president of BRYTE. In fact, Trinh is a tutor and former summer camp director for BRYTE. The Herald regrets the error.