Providing direct support to help refugees navigate the health care system

Supporting refugees with wraparound services

Espoir Kimaze, his mother and seven siblings moved from Uganda to Syracuse, New York in 2019.

When the family arrived in the United States, they needed help navigating their new life – everything from learning how to grocery shop to setting up medical care.

“The health care in Uganda is not the same as the United States,” Espoir said. “You don't have preventive health care. You only go to the doctor when you're sick. When we arrived, we needed someone to walk with us and show us the way.”

Catholic Charities of Onondaga County was the bridge Espoir and his family needed.

The nonprofit helps refugees resettling in Syracuse from countries in crisis.

Over the past five years, the organization has helped close to 1,700 refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and many other countries.

The organization recently received a $174,000 UnitedHealthcare grant to help support these refugees by connecting them with someone who can provide direct support to help them navigate the health system.

When refugees arrive in Syracuse, health navigators – along with case managers – help them access health and mental health screenings, preventive medical care, as well as guiding them through appointments.

“When we have been resettling refugees, what we are finding is that health care is one of the things they found the most difficult to navigate,” said Felicia Castricone, the program officer for Refugee Resettlement Services with Catholic Charities of Onondaga County.

The grant allowed Catholic Charities of Onondaga County to team up with the hospitals and doctors in the area to help ensure a successful transition for these refugees — one that addresses their health needs.

“What’s really gratifying is when you see someone who came here not understanding the health care system at all, but now knows how to call and make an appointment, they know how to go and pick up their prescription,” Felicia said. “It's just been an amazing experience.”

Dr. Andrea Shaw with the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University works primarily with refugee patients and said this community collaboration has allowed the medical team to improve their reach and support to refugees with the lowest health literacy and highest health needs.

“Refugees come with many unmet health needs accompanied by a natural resilience and appreciation for the support provided. Our healthcare system is confusing for anyone. We do our best to improve systems that allow our patients better access to the care they need and improved understanding of their health conditions.” 

In addition to health care coordination, Catholic Charities of Onondaga County also focuses on addressing the social determinants of health to address housing needs, transportation issues, plus financial difficulties and language barriers – helping to make starting a new life a bit easier for families like Espoir’s.

“Every step we took was because of Catholic Charities,” Espoir said. “We are very thankful.”

Three years after relocating to New York, Espoir is now a health navigator with the organization – connecting refugees with the same resources he received.

“Every day we make a difference,” he said. “The kids we are helping today are the kids that will help the next generation of refugees.”

To learn more about Catholic Charities of Onondaga County, visit the organization’s website

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