Immigrants tackle COVID, mental health concerns while overcoming language barriers

May 7, 2020

Diverse communities across the globe face many of the same challenges when battling COVID-19. But for refugee and immigrant populations who are adapting to Western New York, a language barrier can make a pandemic that much harder to deal with. WBFO’s Nick Lippa spoke with Ali Kadhum, Chair of the Iraqi American Society, about how he and other community leaders are stepping up to keep everyone informed and safe.


Nick Lippa: Our immigrant population includes many people who have suffered trauma and torture. How does that kind of past experience have an impact on someone's mental health during a pandemic?

Ali: Yeah, most people as you said, they came from different backgrounds because of the warzone or the fear they live in their life. So this is really, really traumatizing to them staying home, probably thinking they will be starving in a (while)...So the entire situation right now has really increased anxiety for people on this and probably caused fear in the community. We try to keep everyone busy. One of our goals is to provide an education, like real information about COVID-19. Translated to different languages. Or using the website. It's part of the Department of Health. So to share it with the community to make sure that they got the correct information on how to keep themselves and their family safe and healthy. So this is our main goal. They suggest supporting hospitals, local hospital staff who are working on the frontline. With COVID-19 we are going to prepare food as Middle Eastern food from our local restaurants. Sponsored by family, I have some family, they donated $5. Some people $20. It's kind of an appreciation for the medical staff who risked their family and their lives to save people who are infected with COVID-19. So this is one of them, helping the community feel they are participating in a society they are not watching everything. And also we are organizing the blood donation from the community This is going to be (this month) be I spoke with Red Cross. They said they do have a lot of blood (in April), but they prefer May. So we are organizing with the community to have appointments for the community to go on do a blood donation to to support the community in general.

So you mentioned a couple of things, one of which was talking about educating the community. And when we talk about our immigrant population, one of the things that stands out is you have over 80 languages spoken in the buffalo public schools alone. How do you talk about handling language barriers to be able to understand where and how to get accurate information?

Ali: There's a lot of good websites since this virus came to our beautiful earth. So there's a lot of websites from Canada from British, different countries. They (have) responses to people who are speaking different languages. And we did a good research about that and try to not overwhelm the community in general with information, but give them the basic information about the virus on what are the important things to keep their families safe and healthy. So I am a part of the committee called World Refugee Day in Western New York. We do everything every year in June, organizing people from different backgrounds to do soccer a tournament. Cultural performance. Provide free food to the community. Unfortunately this year we may not do it because of this issue. So that makes us connected with most of the community. We do have people who represent different communities from Africa, Asia, the Middle East. So the activists or leaders or community leaders do the same. Each community is taught to respond to their community to provide the support and educate them about COVID-19.

For a lot of people not being able to work, the concern to feed their families has to be pretty high right now?

Ali: Yeah, this is one of the very big challenges. People are not able to pay their rent because they lost their job with language barriers. Sometimes it's so difficult for them to go online and apply for employment or find the resources because it's very limited social communication. So it's a big challenge. We try to link people with food pantries, try to talk with the landlord to help. We have very nice people. I mean they did not take their rent for the month. So for April, Buffalo is a good neighbor for many people. So they understand the situation that some families are not working. So this is one of their participation. Most landlords (have) avoided taking rent for April. In terms of food, there is a committee also in Buffalo. They try to bring food donations from different communities to deliver to each house by bicycle. So I see the response of the community to this crisis as a huge impact on the (amount of) support to our community. This is not only for immigrants and refugees, but in general. We see that people come together as one. One Nation, one community.

Have you heard and or seen concern regarding the profiling of Asian-American immigrants or refugees during this pandemic in Buffalo?

Ali: What we have been seeing, most immigrants, they do have family overseas.They travel every year on different time off (for) holidays, so we do have people that came from different countries here. I don't think this is only for Asia...This is an around the world crisis. When there's an issue like this, the health crisis, the most important thing is making people come together and support each other until this will be done. On the political issues, I don't think I have an answer for that question. But I see in the United States, they are the country of immigrants. We have people from different parts of the world. That's what makes American a beautiful and powerful country with the diversity of a great population (who) became part of this American life. We can’t blame any country. This is what happened this day in China. In the future, we don't know where this virus is going to come from. The most important thing for us as humans, is to save our lives and protect each other instead of blaming countries or people. This is my opinion.

And we run into a situation right now, where we're talking specifically about refugees and immigrants. But a lot of the stressors that refugees and immigrants are experiencing are the same or similar to everyone else, correct?

Ali: Yeah. Yeah, there's a lot of challenges. I mean, my family lives in Iraq. There's people from Iran, their family is in Iran. So we are all worried. We're probably not worried only about ourselves here but we are worried about our family overseas. And I'm sure there's a lot of Asian people, they live here in this country. They are worried about their family. So I think everyone is trying to do a great job with reducing social contact. Trying to work hard to make sure that everyone stays healthy and safe. We need all these great people to still be alive. And I feel sorry and pray for those families who lost their members. I mean, overseas or here in the United States. We pray for peace with them to support the family about this loss. I know there's thousands of people's lives who pass away because of that. 

That's a long distance thing. You're talking about another country. There's definitely other Americans who deal with that in a closer proximity from state to state. similar situations to that. It's everybody at this point, but especially when you talk about a few of the barriers like language, that’s just an additional challenge. Talking before, you mentioned you’ve spoken to some families who haven’t felt safe leaving their house, partially impacted by the language barrier.

Ali: You know, I have been contacting many people in the community. This is one of them. Making sure everyone is doing well. If they are safe. It's kind of checking on. I spoke with one of the families saying that COVID-19-- last week, she said, ‘Only me and my kids are staying home and you're not seeing anyone. It's really overwhelming for the family.’ They are receiving some information and it’s making them overwhelmed. (She) is very scared about her kids to be outside. She thought this virus is in the air. I mean, she cannot open the windows. So we started to provide this information to tell her the right information which is reducing fear and anxiety about the virus. We tell her you can walk with your kids and try to keep this distance. They can use the mask when they go outside or probably use the park but not the playgrounds. So at least 30 minutes walking. We give them a very good instruction to keep the hair on the kids safe. She really appreciated that. We have a lot of community activists and so they try to check in on calls. We really need those calls. If I'm not doing this phone call, I don't know that this family will survive. I mean she did a lot of shopping. This is what happens overseas sometimes when there is a great depression there. People do a lot of shopping. They fill their home with food. So she was preparing about that. Even for three weeks, she didn't go shopping because she already did everything. She thought this is gonna be the same as when she lived in a starvation time in her country. 

How’s the family doing now?

Ali: So now the family, they are understanding the situation much better. Kids, they do have a lot of energy. They are out of school. So especially most of these kids right now are behind their electronics, so I try to give her some suggestions to play family board games, doing some exercise. I try to share with her a lot of good information to keep herself and her kids busy around this time. I teach her how to use Zoom. Her kids, now they start to talk with the other kids on Zoom, because Zoom is a free service, so it's interesting to see the kids. Now they are talking with their friends, calling them. So I see people learn more about this technology using the internet or some up to to build this social connection again. So it's amazing to see that. 

You're talking about being able to help inform accurately in a time where there may be a lot of inaccurate information correct? 

Ali: Yeah. 

What's the challenge for you when you're talking to a family? How often are you confronting inaccurate information?

Ali: I mean you can see on Facebook or social media, there is a lot of suggestion of how to treat COVID-19 and if somebody, or I mean there are some people who may try to give a lot of wrong information. So you cannot control this on social media unless you call people and talk with them. What do you think? How's everything? They are going to tell you… They do have fear that is pushing them to do things that they are not supposed to do. So this fear for parents is transferred sometimes to the kids, because unfortunately I see a lot of that. Some family even inside the home, this has caused OCD-like (behavior) with cleaning a home continuously. Nobody comes to the home, but their families have this fear.They have to clean the home every second, washing. We have to make sure to keep everyone healthy and safe, but overthinking also is not healthy to our behavioral future. We want to make sure to avoid any contact with others. Also having hand sanitizer, masks. When we come home, making sure that we are keeping our shoes or sandals outside the home in the garage or somewhere. What we see in some families, this fear probably controls their future thinking. 

Trauma informed care. What does that mean as it pertains to COVID-19?

Ali: So, I think the most important things-- first is education, as we said. Create a safe environment through telling people the right time information on what they need to be prepared for this-- probably for a month or two. Try to empower them. Try to help them to make them a decision maker for their family to make the right decision for what is best for their family and themselves. This situation, I see events, sometimes with family if they have like, just sneezing, because we have allergy season here in Western New York. Many people do have allergy things, so I've been talking with some family, they said, ’I'm afraid I need to go to the hospital.’ So because of sneezing a lot, they thought they probably have this virus. Maybe they wake up, they don't feel good. They thought that they have these kinds of symptoms. The good thing is we provide the funds to give a call to their primary doctor, asking them if they have these symptoms (and) if they need to go to their local hospital. I think that these primary doctors are doing a great job with probably addressing the needs. We do have health (care). I work with the BestSelf Behavioral Health, as like a health coordinator or care manager, speaking different languages. They do a lot of coordinating with the providers to provide the right information or call on behalf of the client to make sure that, if the client needs to go to the hospital or if they can't be seen by a primary doctor. I think, for trauma informed care, I think it's really important to focus on education and empowering the community in general.

If somebody from the refugee or immigrant population was looking for resources during this time-- information that they wanted to confirm, where would you recommend they go to speak with somebody?

Ali: For Erie County it depends. In general, unfortunately we do not have the local place where they can go. I mean a friendly place if they don't speak English. So the only support in this time for non-English speakers is the community leaders or community representatives. Probably healthcare providers. They do have a lot of translators. And so this is the right place to start. A friend or family member who speaks English. I think that's a good thing. We do have good resources on Erie County's website. I think for those who speak English, if they need a job opportunity there are a lot of job openings right now. We have WhatsApp in the community-- about 200 people in the WhatsApp in the community-- and I'm sure there's other communities, they have the same WhatsApp to communicate with their own people. Share job openings, share information, try to discuss things that are important for the family and kids. I've been seeing this as most people, they are working maybe individually or with a group and hopefully in the future, there will be something like a coalition of working together, as you said, if somebody needs something so they can go directly there.