CLEAR options for refugees

Project's classes teach them about health care in their new home

October 25, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun Reporter

Oretha T. Wondee had gotten her family safely out of the West African country of Liberia, where 14 years of war had surrounded them with violence, ruined the economy and cost hundreds of thousands their homes.

But as a new refugee in Baltimore nine months ago, she began to see threats of a different kind to her five children.

She didn't know how to ward off illness and infection. She didn't know where to go if someone had a toothache. She'd never heard of 911.

Wondee got some of the basics from the nonprofit group that resettled her in Baltimore. But she wanted to know more and feel more in control of her new, peaceful, but strange, surroundings.

So she signed up for a new class aimed at training refugees and asylum seekers over 10 weeks to become community health care workers. Called the CLEAR Project -- or the Community Leadership Education for Asylees and Refugees -- it's modeled after similar programs in cities in Minnesota and California.

It was developed locally by a nurse and former Peace Corps volunteer using fellowship money from the Open Society Institute, a nonprofit group that promotes human rights and social reform.

The idea is to train refugees so they can return to their new homes and new communities in the Baltimore region and help others learn about such things as insurance, free clinics, disease prevention, hygiene and prenatal care. Some are already working in the health care profession. Some like Wondee, who works in a nursing home, want to become certified nursing assistants or other medical professionals.

Some of the graduates will go on to train others for the volunteer job. And there's also a study under way to see if there is a market for paid community health workers.

"I wanted to be able to talk to my friends and family, my kids mainly, and be able to back it up with information," said Wondee recently after a class held in the South Anchor Library in Highlandtown.

Wondee is one of 13 refugees from African countries in the first wave of students, who graduated Sept. 29.

What they all have in common is they didn't leave home by choice. There was civil unrest in their country and threats to them. Neighboring nations wouldn't take them. And an American volunteer organization resettled them after they applied for and got refugee status.

Locally, refugees come through the Baltimore Resettlement Center, an umbrella group of agencies that helps with housing, employment and health screenings.

Aisling McGuckin, the CLEAR project founder who once worked at the center, couldn't shake the needs she saw. The center was providing good care initially, but lacked resources to give intense attention in the long term. The program she developed was a way for them to help themselves, she said.

McGuckin is now nearly a year into her 18-month fellowship and pleased with what she was able to teach with notebooks, an easel and a small groups of students gathered around a table in the library and at other locations twice a week.

The first part of the curriculum focused on leadership development, speaking skills and how to advocate for fellow refugees. The second part taught how to convey health messages to community members.

In a recent class, McGuckin played the role of someone in need of care but reluctant to seek it. She pushed a group of three students to say how they would persuade her to go to the doctor.

They explained what the symptoms could mean, and then one woman offered: "I will go with you."

McGuckin said that was a good answer.

"Hopefully," she said after class, "this [program] is going to fill the need to have community health workers available. They can answer questions, conduct workshops and translate documents, escort someone to the dentist. Practical stuff."

All of the students were chosen for their interest and their ability to speak English.

McGuckin plucked them from the resettlement center, with the help of groups based there such as the International Rescue Committee. The committee resettles about half of the refugees that come to Maryland, or thousands in recent years, including 432 between last October and the end of July. Hundreds more are on the way, including some from Iraq and other war-torn places.

Kakoli Ray, director of the committee in Baltimore, said much of McGuckin's program teaches fundamentals ingrained in American children over years in school or by their parents, teachers and even television. When the committee has to step back to focus on newer refugees, the CLEAR program steps in.

"Public health is not as out there other places," she said. "You don't know to get tested for hepatitis, for example, or why you should quit smoking. [McGuckin] is instilling this culture and teaching them where to go."

She said regardless of refugees' education, they won't know how to navigate the American system unless they are taught. A lot of information was new even to Apetoh Apo Sophie, a doctor in her home country of Ivory Coast who plans to become a U.S. doctor once her English is more advanced.

It wasn't much good to know what an infection looked like if she couldn't tell someone where to go for treatment. Like Wondee from Liberia, her lack of answers frustrated her.

"I'd like to teach what I know to someone who needs help," she said after a recent class. "This is a way for me to keep helping people."

Join the class

To recommend participants for the Community Leadership Education for Asylees and Refugees Project, call 443-253-7172 or e-mail their names and why they are recommended to theclear

The program requires participants to be current or former asylees or refugees. They need documented intermediate English language skills, a demonstrated connection to their community, leadership potential and a genuine interest in the program. The next classes begin in January. For more information, go to

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