Campus News

Refugee Health Summit addresses links between housing and health

Four refugees lead a panel discussion of their experience when they relocated to Buffalo, NY.

From left, area refugees Chan Myae Thu, Steven Sanyu, Theo Have and Abdi Farah spoke about their experiences as part of a panel discussion moderated by Samina Raja, co-director of UB's Community for Global Health Equity (far right). Photo: Douglas Levere


Published April 17, 2019 This content is archived.

Portrait of Kasia Kordas.
“Today’s summit is really the culmination of a lot of conversations that the organizing committee has had about the issues that remain of concern to the communities of refugees in Erie County and Buffalo. ”
Kasia Kordas, co-director
Community of Excellence for Global Health Equity

As a medical case manager for Evergreen Health in Buffalo, Theo Have assists many refugee patients. Too often, Have’s clients experience health issues that are directly related to their housing situation.

For example, one patient who has to take daily medication for a chronic illness stopped doing so because she was facing eviction due to sanitation issues. Many refugees who resettle in the U.S. aren’t familiar with appropriate food storage. The woman was missing doctor’s appointments, which were preventing her from getting the medication she needed.

“How can you take your medication when you will be evicted in a couple of weeks, or even days?” Have said.

This was one of numerous examples demonstrating the correlation between housing and health discussed April 13 during UB’s sixth annual Western New York Refugee Health Summit held at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

The health summit was co-sponsored by UB’s Community of Excellence for Global Health Equity and the Office of Global Health Initiatives in the School of Public Health and Health Professions.

A timely topic

Each year’s summit has featured a different topic of relevance to the region’s New Americans. This year’s focus, however, was among the most pressing. While many Erie County residents, not just refugees, face housing challenges that adversely impact their health, the issues are often more compounded for those resettling here.

“The journey of each refugee is unique, but one thing that they have in common is the need to flee from something, whether that be conflict, violence or persecution, and to seek new life elsewhere. But such a journey includes incredible and sometimes unspeakable loss and heartache,” Kasia Kordas, co-director of UB’s Community of Excellence in Global Health Equity, said in her welcome address.

“A welcoming community such as ours and a secure, healthy home should serve as accommodations for this new life, but that’s not always the case. Today’s summit is really the culmination of a lot of conversations that the organizing committee has had about the issues that remain of concern to the communities of refugees in Erie County and Buffalo,” added Kordas, who is also an associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.

New York State resettles the most refugees in the nation, behind Texas, and one-third to one-half of them are resettled in Erie County, said Jessica Scates, administrative coordinator for UB’s Community for Global Health Equity.

Saturday’s summit featured panelists who spoke about their experiences as refugees in Buffalo, along with reflections from representatives of community organizations that work with the refugee community about what they’ve been seeing in recent years.

People in an audience listening to a panel discussion.

Attendees of the Refugee Health Summit, which took place in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. Photo: Douglas Levere

Buffalo’s housing stock poses challenges

Buffalo faces a variety of challenges with its housing, including poverty and one of the nation’s oldest housing stocks.  

“You have this whole mix of a city’s population going down, poverty going up, seeing more vacancy and home abandonment, but now in recent years seeing investment and speculation. So rents are going up even while neighborhoods are still dealing with that legacy of vacancy and quite poor conditions,” said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good.  

Housing discrimination is also rampant, added Daniel Corbitt, associate director for Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), who said many people who are discriminated against don’t realize that it’s illegal. They are focused more on providing a place of shelter for their family.  

“They don’t recognize that it’s a problem and perhaps even if they do they don’t feel that they have the time to address this issue,” Corbitt said.

Three panelists discuss the housing crisis in Buffalo, NY.

Panelists discuss some of the issues they've seen with housing in Buffalo. From left: Lila Rollo, coordinator, International Institute of Buffalo; Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director, Partnership for the Public Good; and Daniel Corbitt, associate director, Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME). Samina Raja, far right, moderated the discussion. Photo: Douglas Levere

Learning new social constructs

Many refugees also find themselves in situations they’ve never experienced before, or trying to navigate social constructs that are vastly different from those that exist in their home country.

For example, Have, who arrived from Rwanda in 2000, recalled the shock of realizing that many people in the U.S. don’t interact with their neighbors. “Back in my country, if you are sick you don’t have 9-1-1,” he said. “The 9-1-1 is your neighbor. You just go there and say I’m sick and they help you.”

For Chan Myae Thu and her husband, who came to Buffalo from Burma nearly 10 years ago, sanitation and fire safety were unfamiliar issues. Thu recalled taking the battery out of the smoke detector because it had gone off so much while preparing food.

One day, she was cooking fish cake in the oven and forgot to shut it off. Her husband noticed the burning smell when he got home from work. Had he been late that day, Thu says a fire would have broken out. Now, they use smoke detectors and have a carbon monoxide alarm in the house.

“I don’t want my fellow refugees to make the same mistake,” she said.

“Improving the housing quality, affordability and security for all can lead to better outcomes for our refugee community,” said Abdi Farah, community health specialist with the Community Health Center of Buffalo.

Throughout the event, summit participants noted the type of action needed to improve housing and health for refugee populations in Buffalo. The Community for Global Health Equity, in partnership with the planning committee, will be developing systemic and individual action steps in the coming months.

For more information about the summit, or if you are interested in contributing to making improvements in housing and health for refugees in Buffalo, contact Jessica Scates at