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African refugees tell stories of health inequalities in Northeast Ohio

Autumn Bland

Esther Ngemba takes photographs for her story about the mental health effects of attending U.S. schools for refugee children. Her project is one of four in a series highlighting health disparities in the refugee community, as reported by those in that community. Her piece will publish soon.

Today starts a series of stories on the barriers to health access in Northeast Ohio refugee communities produced as part of a Connecting the Dots between Race and Health project.

Throughout the Connecting the Dots project, Ideastream Public Media partnered with community organizations, freelance journalists, artists and community leaders to produce projects that explored the nexus between race and health from unique and often ignored perspectives.

The four-story series that starts today was produced by a team of storytellers from Northeast Ohio with refugee backgrounds.

Sydney Kornegay, a freelance journalist and former director of adult programs at Refugee Response, an organization that supports resettled refugees, edited the pieces as part of the Connecting the Dots Between Race and Health project.

“I was looking for some way to combine these two things of empowering our community members to tell their own stories, to practice a craft they were interested in and touch on some important topics that often get overlooked, underreported," she said.

The storytellers pitched and created the stories, which include digital and video pieces. Kornegay said they wanted to examine the challenges refugees face finding work in the medical field and health equity issues impacting underserved communities.

"A lot of times when you're reading stories about inequality and health inequality, it's often the stories that are written about people versus alongside and with the individuals who are impacted by it," she said. "I just think [the latter] adds a level of nuance and insight to be able to hear from the individuals themselves, their reflections on how inequality is impacting them in their community."

Refugees come from many different cultures, however, they often share unequal treatment in health care systems due to lack of health insurance, work conditions and barriers to access to quality health care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Each part of this series follows a person's experience facing health barriers as a refugee. In the first part, storyteller Jonas Mbonga turns the lens on himself and his experience applying for asylum in the U.S.

“He focused on the mental and physical health effects of detention for him and for other people who were with him, but also sort of a support system... that he met while he was there and which have supported him since he emerged," Kornegay said.

Read part one here:

Jonas Mbonga, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, fled to escape an increasingly violent political situation. His travels brought him to the United States where he was detained while applying for asylum. The experience affected his health, he said.

The second story, which will be published tomorrow, features Ikenna Ogwuegbu, who co-founded Icon Health Foundation, an organization that improves access to health screenings — so refugees could get information on mostly preventable diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes. He came to Cleveland from Nigeria when he was 11. When he attended pharmacy school, he volunteered with different health organizations where he realized the need for culturally competent healthcare providers, including those who come from refugee communities.

“It was so disheartening that majority of [refugees] did not [have basic health information,]" Ogwugegbu said of an early experience at a health screening. "They brought their medications for us to view. They didn't know why they were on any medication. They didn't even know how to use some of the inhalers they had. I just realized that there's so much work that needed to be done.”

Part three explores the career of Juvens Niyonzima, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who arrived with an education in the sciences, but took a job as a cleaner at University Hospitals because his credentials weren't recognized.

Niyonzima discusses what it took for him to move up in the system from cleaning staff to a position in a hospital laboratory.

In part four, Esther Ngemba will examine the mental health effects of attending U.S. schools for refugee children. Check back with ideastream.org in coming weeks to find Ngemba's story.

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.