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— Clinical

Strangers in a Stranger Time

Helping San Diego’s refugee community cope with pandemic’s impact

For refugees living in San Diego, the challenges caused by a global pandemic were magnified in a city they had just begun to call home. In response, the UC San Diego Refugee Health Unit shifted its focus to supporting members of communities experiencing systemic inequities exacerbated by the public health crisis. Work began with a survey of the San Diego refugee community, the first in more than 15 years.

Surveyors learned that nearly one-third of families had canceled or missed health appointments during the pandemic. In more than 40 percent of surveyed families, at least one member had lost their job; 60 percent of families couldn’t pay rent and feared they would be evicted.

“For us, our work is more about looking at the issue of systemic racism and tackling that,” said Amina Sheik Mohamed, founding director of the Refugee Health Unit.

“For us, our work is more about looking at the issue of systemic racism and tackling that”

— —Amina Sheik Mohamed

“Right now we’re figuring out where the gaps are to meet the community where they are. With our approach, we collect information on what is needed, how to get these resources to the community and then we go to the next problem. We’re climbing the ladder together. It’s not one group, but all of us, and it’s something to be proud of.”

After the survey, the Refugee Health Unit served as a conduit between the refugee community and the County of San Diego by holding meetings with community health care workers and local government officials.

“We received weekly updates from the county on the pandemic, including vaccine eligibility and tier restrictions, and then took those updates back to our community health care workers who disseminated the information to refugee community members,” said Reem Zubaidi, manager of the Refugee Health Unit. “This was essential to the whole process. We can’t understate how important it is to provide this information in a person’s primary language from someone who they can relate to and converse with in their preferred communications method. It’s not just translation, it’s cultural.”