Responding to Refugees: A Healthcare Worker’s Perspective

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Have you ever felt like an outsider in a foreign land? In recent years, the refugee population has significantly increased. This affects us on national and local levels.

The estimated refugee population reached an unprecedented 19.6 million individuals worldwide in 2015—half of them being children—and the number is steadily increasing, with Syria as the leading country of origin of refugees.[1]

To clarify, refugees have been forced to flee their home country. They are unable to return because they are at risk for persecution due to race, nationality, religion or membership in a political social group or political opinion.

Many people respond to refugees with fear. I see this fear often in the field I work in: the United States (U.S.) healthcare system.

In this article, I want to explore how Christians in healthcare can better care for refugees. Even if you do not work in this field, you can still use these 3 suggestions in your life so you can learn to love the refugee like Christ does.

1. Listen to refugees.

Refugees’ language barrier isn’t a wall; it is an opportunity. Jesus often asks his followers to do the hard thing, and in a doctor’s office or a hospital, the hard thing may involve trying to communicate with someone who speaks a different language. Remember, a language barrier doesn’t mean a person is ignorant or unaware. And a language barrier can serve to show us our own selfishness and thus serve as a means of our own sanctification.

How is your attitude today? How many times do we as Christians subconsciously think, “I’m a pretty humble person”? Yet, when we are put to the test, we often come up short of active humility and selfless love. Too often, we want comfort more than loving our neighbor, whether that be the sometimes-annoying person you always try to avoid or the one who came from another country to find refuge.

If you are a healthcare worker or even someone who is given the opportunity to understand someone with a different language, may we give up our comfort and seek to serve them by listening to them even when it seems inconvenient.

Go find the interpreter, download the app, take the extra time to facilitate understanding and meaningful communication. In so doing, you will serve this refugee and grow in humility.

2. Practice the Great Commandments.

We are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:17), and we need to be a part of political conversations. However, Jesus primarily calls us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:28-31). I do not pretend to have all the political solutions to the plight of refugees, but I know that I must love my neighbor — which means I must love the refugee.  

Sadly, workers in my vocation often don’t demonstrate this kind of love for refugees. Too often, I see exchanges like the following:

“How can we help you?” the emergency room worker says in English to a Burmese man.

The man looks bewildered because he cannot understand one word.  His pain displayed clearly on his face, he crumples his forehead and sits in his wheelchair, unable to respond.

“Mam,” I say, “he will need an interpreter.”

The workers whisper to one another, laughing.

Again, I say, “He needs an interpreter…he is highly educated and smart, he just cannot understand our language.”

He winces in pain again, and the workers huff and puff to try to get an interpreter on the phone.

In the healthcare system, this kind of interaction with a refugee is not abnormal. Workers are tempted to react in this manner either because of a lack of understanding or plain selfishness.

We are members of God’s kingdom. Let’s serve Christ by loving those who challenge us to go out of our comfort zones.

3. Advocate for these friends.

Refugees are at risk for significant problems related to physical and mental health:

Evidence suggests that refugees often have acute mental health problems and trauma symptoms, notably depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), related to organized violence, torture, human rights violation, resettlement and traumatic migration experience.  Victims of torture and other forms of violence experience a range of physical problems and disabilities, including malunited fractures, soft tissue injuries, musculoskeletal symptoms, neuropathies, head injuries, and epilepsy.[2]

Some of the biggest barriers to healthcare for refugees coming to the U.S. is inadequate information from their pasts, insufficient finances, restricted access to transportation and awareness of available services. 

Often times, we as healthcare workers and even the general public can do something as simple as educating their friends on the needs of refugees’ health. Also, you can advocate for them by taking them to a doctor’s appointment to help with communication.   

Refugees are here. You will come face-to-face with someone who has been or is a refugee, especially if you work in healthcare. For healthcare workers like myself, we must remember that access to healthcare is important. Being a refugee should never exclude someone from receiving healthcare.

But even if you don’t work in healthcare, these principles apply to you, too. You can love refugees or those who aren’t convenient to love (Isaiah 1:17; Psalm 82:3-4; Matthew 7:12; Jeremiah 22:3). God will be faithful to give you the resources to love your neighbor, who just might be a refugee.  

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?…And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:38-40)

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Hannah Jayne Adkins

Hannah is a student in the counseling program at Southeastern Seminary. She blogs at For the Glory of the King. In her free time, you can find her exploring new food places or spending time with the people she loves.

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