Creating a "Community of Solution" for Refugees: Diversity in the approaches of local research responses

By KIM GRISWOLD, MD, MPH, FAAFP

Published November 1, 2016

“I have tried to comprehend the trauma and loss refugees have withstood; and I have been captivated by their resilience and ability to transform their lives.”
Family Medicine

Communities in every nation are increasingly faced with the need to provide competent, equitable and culturally appropriate services for resettling refugees. 

Health-centric disciplines cannot overcome the challenges presented by newly arriving diverse populations, nor alleviate the disparities they face – such as isolation, limited English proficiency, differences in patients’ attitudes and health literacy levels, and a lack of cultural awareness on the part of providers. Instead, transdisciplinary partnerships that combine health sciences specialties with Architecture, Planning, Engineering, and X (Cross)-Synergizing Disciplines - (such as geography, anthropology, economics, history, law, music, art, drama, etc.) are needed. These cross-disciplinary collaborations in research, education and engagement are central to the mission of the University at Buffalo (UB) Community for Global Health Equity.

Like many of my colleagues, I have been involved since the late 1980’s with refugee health care and resettlement.  As a border town, Buffalo, NY has a long tradition of serving refugees; four refugee resettlement agencies, a Center for Survivors of Torture funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and one of the largest residential centers for asylum seekers in the US are in Buffalo.  This cultural diversity has provided important research and educational opportunities in Buffalo and at the University at Buffalo. Within our local Refugee Health and Wellness Project Team, we are encouraging scholarly work that addresses gaps that reduce barriers to improved health and well-being for refugees.  Our Annual Western New York Refugee Health Summit provides a platform to discuss problems encountered by patients and providers, and to showcase local solution-oriented research endeavors. For example, colleagues in systems engineering are developing a health passport that refugees could carry with them to different doctors and specialists, improving communication channels between doctors and within families and reducing problems related to prescription adherence or immunization records. UB Faculty are developing culturally engaged tools to understand issues surrounding mental health and creating evidence-based evaluations that assess how to meet the needs of individuals who have witnessed violence, and/or survived torture. Faculty members are evaluating the perceptions of health trainees participating in refugee health clinics, and the extent of their cultural awareness. And community partners are assessing how breast health education improves knowledge of mammograms and breast health among refugee and immigrant women.

In caring for individuals and families from all over the world, I have tried to comprehend the trauma and loss refugees have withstood; and I have been captivated by their resilience and ability to transform their lives.  However, large gaps in science, socio-cultural barriers, unjust or ineffectual policies and unequal practices affecting populations locally and around the world and depriving refugees of healthy and successful lives in Buffalo. In order to address these gaps we must learn to listen to people from different cultures to inform the questions we ask. Healthy Communities of Solution for refugee populations can be achieved through research based in strong cross-disciplinary partnerships, person-centered health care and a focus on innovation. Collaborative partnerships will inspire our future transdisciplinary thinkers!