Older refugees face barriers to accessing services

Nov 1, 2019

Older refugees in Buffalo face challenges that younger refugees circumvent. Although services are prolific for this community, they are not always as accessible due to certain barriers. Those barriers make it sometimes impossible for them to utilize the available resources.


William Sukaly, Program Director at Catholic Charities, identified some of the prevalent concerns he and other providers have.

“The major issue is that they are isolated from the community. Because they don’t speak English, they don’t come to school. Most likely they are the only people in their family who do not learn English,” Sukaly said.

While there are adult education programs available, seniors don’t have access to transportation aid. Combining this factor with a lack of English proficiency and unemployment creates a barrier between them and the rest of the community. While some individuals don’t see this as an issue, Sukaly argues it is.

“Most come from a culture where elderly are held in esteem. They are likely the head of the family so culturally, they are happy being at home. That is kind of their role. They never really ask for a lot of services. But we know that for them to be healthy in America, they’re going to need to be able to socialize and get out and do things like that,” he said.

Even if there was transportation aid to get them to and from ESL classes, other barriers hinder the learning process. It’s not uncommon for older migrants to be illiterate in their native language, making it even harder for them to learn English, coupled with the fact that it is already difficult to learn a new language at an older age.

Aside from isolation, other problems ensue.

“After five years of collecting social security, they need to become citizens. If they don’t pass their citizenship test, they lose their Social Security. So, unless they can speak English or get a diagnosis from a doctor saying they are incapable of learning English, they lose their benefits,” Sukaly said.

Somali native and case worker with Catholic Charities Suad Obsiye agrees that isolation, as well as culture shock, are issues. She even thinks it can lead to mental health problems. Obsiye said older newcomers are happy to be in a safe environment, but it comes with a price.

“They are unhappy because they are not getting what they had wherever they came. Like they talking to everyone, they go wherever they want, they are free. In this, they cannot do all this stuff and that is another challenge,” she said.

Catholic Charities provides mental health services at their Monsignor Carr Institute clinic. In addition to the issues identified by Obsiye, senior therapist Jessica Whitley said post-traumatic stress disorder is one of a few diagnoses amongst newcomers.

“We may see some anxiety disorder related to being in a completely new environment. It’s also very normal for a person to experience some depressive symptoms.  Especially if they came over here without their families. Those are all relatively common reactions to immigrating to a different place, in general,” Whitley said.

Whitley also said that she has come across people from different cultures and countries that don’t even have a word to describe mental health problems. In their native country, mental health was brushed under the rug. An individual could have lived years with PTSD or anxiety disorder until it was addressed once arriving to Buffalo.

Catholic Charities works with different services to provide an interpreter for ESL folks who want counseling. Sometimes, clients would prefer to bring a family member to translate for them.

The Monsignor Carr Institute also runs a substance abuse program. Sometimes, individuals use alcohol to cope with PTSD. However, there are currently no studies based in Buffalo that measures the rate of alcohol or drug abuse in the refugee community. As of now, there is only anecdotal evidence of drinking problems among individuals with PTSD, but nothing statistically more significant compared to the general population.