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UC Merced students help refugees navigate healthcare
UC Merced refugees
Colleen Rivas, Dr. Erin Gaab, Yesenia Villa, Evelyn Salvador, Andy Contreras and Mayra Torres work on a video they are producing for Gaabs Public Health class at UC Merced to help refugees better navigate the U.S. healthcare system. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

The healthcare system can be tricky to understand, from signing up for health insurance to booking a doctor’s appointment – and that’s for people who were born in this country. For refugees, healthcare is a slippery and confusing slope that they are often expected to climb alone, which is why Public Health students at the University of California, Merced, have taken it upon themselves to simplify the system for the area’s newest immigrant families.

Students in Dr. Erin Gaab’s Public Health 181 class are currently tackling the greatest needs within several Public Health topics, one of which is refugee health. Students Andy Contreras, Evelyn Salvador, Yesenia Villa, Colleen Rivas, Mayra Torres and Torriana Lomax have met with numerous refugee families, assessing their various health needs and how to address them. Some of the themes that have arisen during the group’s research are refugees’ access to housing and transportation, as well as their access to healthcare.

“There are things that we take for granted as people that have lived here for quite some time,” said Gaab. “When we go to the doctor we know we need to arrive on time or a few minutes early…there are things like that which are subtle, but not obvious, because of the systems from which these people are coming.”

The group hopes to help refugees better navigate the U.S. healthcare system through the creation of an instructional video, helping immigrants understand what resources are available to them. When refugees arrive in America, the International Rescue Committee takes them in and helps them get settled, setting them up with a doctor for vaccinations and other healthcare services. After that, the refugees are on their own to find doctors and specialists in the future. Gaab’s students hope to fill that void through their video.

With the help of the Muslim Student Association on campus, the video will be translated into several different languages, including Dari, Farsi, Arabic, Hindu and Pashto.

“We’re trying to make the video in as many languages as we can so it can be used in as many places as possible,” said Contreras.

The video contains a reenactment of what a doctor’s visit may be like, along with different scenarios, such as checking in to the doctor’s office and asking for and picking up prescriptions. Refugees’ rights will be listed in the video as well, such as the right to a translator, along with instructions on tasks like making a doctor’s appointment, writing down questions for the doctor, bringing medical history for appointments and understanding insurance coverage, to name a few.

Upon completion of the video, the group hopes to distribute it to refugee aid agencies like the IRC and Central Valley Crescent, a Modesto-based agency that the group has worked closely with in order to meet some of the refugees they are helping. The group gave an instructional demonstration about healthcare at an IRC cultural orientation recently, and the CVC has been instrumental with helping the students meet and understand refugees coming to the Central Valley and the struggles they face.

“We want to personally reach the families and get more of an in-depth analysis of what they might need or problems they may have faced since coming here,” said Contreras. “We know it’s a hard transition, so we want to see the personal side.”

Working with refugee families so closely has put recent political headlines into perspective for the students, they said, such as the recent executive order signed by President Donald Trump which temporarily suspends the nation’s refugee program.

“It’s terrible,” said Contreras. “We went to the IRC after the first ban had been placed, and you could see there was worry on the refugees’ faces. We want to get their stories out there and show them there are people who want to help.”

The group has been working on their instructional video since the beginning of the semester in late January, and expects to complete the project by the end of May when school is out for summer.