June 18, 2008

Man Helps Somali Newcomers Get Needed Health Care

By Chris Casey, Greeley Tribune, Colo.

Jun. 18--Shirley Salazar noticed a new group strolling into Monfort Family Clinic about four months ago. Many of them wore colorful headscarfs called hijabs.

"We started getting the Somalis into the clinic and realized that we had a problem," said Salazar, a Spanish interpreter at the Evans clinic, which treats mostly Latinos.

The problem is communication. The Somalis hail from 9,000 miles away, on the horn of Africa, and they speak Somali, Arabic and Italian. Many had put off medical care since 1991, when civil war erupted in the east African nation.

After calling Denver-based Lutheran Family Services, which helps Somali refugees find housing, education and health services in Colorado, Salazar was put in touch with a Greeley case worker, who found Aziz Dhies to serve as an interpreter at the clinic.

Dhies has volunteered at Monfort for several weeks, helping physicians understand the health care needs and cultural idiosyncrasies of Somali patients.

They are receiving vaccinations, blood-pressure checks and treatments for lingering ailments. Some expectant mothers, wearing hijabs, are getting prenatal care.

Many of the Somalis -- an estimated 400 are in Greeley, most working at JBS Swift & Co. -- find that Dhies softens the blow when they inch into the bewildering maze of American health care.

Dhies enjoys serving as navigator, guiding the newcomers along. He's been in the U.S. for 10 years, including stays in Tennessee, Minnesota and Washington.

"Many people are new here, and they don't know where the (medical) offices are, where to go to get help," he said. "... I've been helping with my community since I was young, starting with the refugee camp."

He gets calls from recent refugee arrivals and makes appointments for them at Monfort Family Clinic, which is operated by Sunrise Community Health Inc.

Dhies also bridges cultural gaps for health-care providers. Headscarf-wearing Somali women, for instance, don't shake hands with men.

Monfort Family Clinic occasionally treats Asians and other minorities who require physicians to call a "language line" for interpretation. Because of Greeley's large Somali population -- and steadily growing -- the clinic decided to find an African interpreter. Dhies volunteers from 8 a.m.-noon Wednesdays and Fridays, but the clinic plans to hire him full time.

A human translator is optimal, according to Mitzi Moran, president of Sunrise Community Health.

"Sometimes we use the AT&T Language Line, but would you want to receive your health care over the phone?" Moran said. "It doesn't feel good to either the patient or the provider."

Like many of his countrymen, Dhies came to the U.S. with a heavy heart. His mother was killed in the civil war, and his father and several siblings fled to Ethiopia from the family's home of Mogadishu. Meanwhile, Dhies and two brothers and a sister drove south to Kenya. Their car broke down in southern Somalia and they walked for four days -- 2-1/2 days without food -- to cross into Kenya and the safety of refugee camps.

Dhies, 34, was 16 at the time. "It was a very horrific thing -- terrifying."

He learned more languages in Kenya, and Dhies now speaks Somali, Swahili, Arabic and English. His decade in America includes a year-long Denver stint in 2001. He has a son in Denver and a wife and daughter in Seattle, where until two months ago he worked as a health-care translator.

Dhies said his passion is helping fellow Somalis find their way in foreign lands. They are open-minded and don't expect others to harbor racial biases -- based on culture, religion or skin color -- against them.

"They believe they can go anywhere in the world and work as long as they are not harming anybody," Dhies said. "They are friendly."

Somalis also are business-minded and eager to fend for themselves wherever they live, he said. They avoid going to U.S. hospitals, fearing they won't be able to pay the bills.

Overall, Dhies said, Somalis are physically fit and health conscious. He said his father always extolled the beverage of choice in the hot, arid nation.

"We drank camel milk," Dhies said with a smile. "Camel milk cures all diseases."

While that drink probably won't catch on stateside, Dhies' boundless optimism is well worth bottling up.

After all the violence and poverty his nation has endured, he sees a silver lining to the Somali migration that continues across the globe.

"We needed to come to the world," Dhies said, "and ... see what's going on in the world."

Chris Casey is a reporter at The Tribune. He covers immigration, diversity and higher education. His column runs on Wednesdays. To reach him, e-mail [email protected] or call (970) 392-5623.

Health care in a new country

As legal refugees with United Nations protections, just-arrived Somalis receive about eight months of eligibility for state- and federal-funded health programs in the United States. In Greeley-Evans, many go to Sunrise Community Health in Evans, which is a nonprofit that houses multiple health-related agencies and serves low-income, uninsured people.

As political refugees, the Somalis also receive employment eligibility, which is why a large number have landed jobs at JBS Swift & Co. plants in Greeley and Fort Morgan.

At Monfort Family Clinic -- operated by Sunrise Community Health -- patients who are not eligible for government aid pay their health-care bills on a sliding scale based on income.

The clinic has treated Somalis for several months, but it just recently began tracking their numbers. The facility has treated 22 Somali patients in the past two weeks.

-- Chris Casey


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