Riggs, the keynote speaker at the Sept. 21 community Refugee Summit 2016: a Focus on Health Care, served from 1980 to 2011 as director of Refugee and Immigration Ministries for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, which is headquartered in Indianapolis.
In that role, her travels also included visiting many churches in this country, where she spoke about the need for churches and individuals to have an active role with refugee resettlement.
“People had all these opinions about bringing in refugees, how we’re being overwhelmed by them, invaded by foreigners,” Riggs said. “I would listen. Then I would begin telling stories about particular refugees I’d met.”
When asked to recall some of the unforgettable stories, a young Bosnian girl came immediately to Riggs’ mind.
“I was in a refugee camp in Turkey, visiting Bosnian refugees. There was a little girl, 10 years old. She had not talked since she’d fled Bosnia,” Riggs recalled.
Militia had overtaken the village and brutally murdered many villagers. The little girl was standing next to her uncle when militia beheaded him; his head fell down onto the child’s feet. Even though she and other family members were able to flee to safety, the trauma she endured created such fear and anxiety she had developed a form of mutism.
“After I told stories like these of particular refugees, those individuals (who looked unfavorably on welcoming more refugees) would say, “Of course, that person or that group should come,” Riggs said, adding, “I would think, ‘If they would see what I was seeing, they would understand.’”
The goal of the Refugee Summit is to do just that: help the community understand who refugees are and why and how to be a more welcoming to them, said Melissa Rinehart of Fort Wayne, a cultural diversity specialist who is helping organize the event, which is open to the public.
Rinehart said organizers and supportive partners, which include Catholic Charities, Crime Victim Care of Allen County, St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, Fort Wayne Medical Education Program, LUNA Language Services and Maple Leaf Farms, hope the refugee summit will be an annual event in Fort Wayne.
According to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, between 2001 and Aug. 30 of this year, 3,882 refugees from 20 countries were resettled in Fort Wayne, with additional refugees coming here after initially being resettled in other communities.
A health care focus was chosen for this first refugee summit because physical and mental health impacts every aspect of an individual’s life, Rinehart said. Cultural misunderstandings, language barriers, lack of insurance due to underemployment and transportation issues are among factors affecting refugees and thus the clinicians who provide care.
“We want to address how to bridge these gaps in services and in being more culturally sensitive in health care,” Rinehart said. For example, one presenter is Ahmed Abdelmageed, director of experiential education at Manchester University College of Pharmacy, who will discuss how dietary preferences of Muslim patients can impact their compliance with prescribed medications. Another session will focus on mental health issues.
With more refugees in the world right now than there were at the end of World War II, Riggs said community organizations, faith groups, schools and neighborhoods must step up to support refugee resettlement agencies, which are busier than ever helping refugees in the initial resettlement process.
“In America, we don’t think we have a culture," Riggs said. "We think this is the way things are. We’re right and they’re wrong.”
Fear and ignorance can keep us at arms’ length — or further — from becoming involved with refugees in our community. We can start by asking ourselves: How would we want someone to help if that 10-year-old girl, so traumatized she could no longer speak, was our child or grandchild?
“Refugees coming to the United States are more thoroughly screened, have gone through more layers of vetting, than any other group coming into the country,” Riggs noted. “Refugees are survivors; the ones who can’t survive these situations are dead. We have to stop pitying people and support their ability to survive. They’ve made it this far, so with additional help, they can make it even further.”
Jennifer L. Boen is a freelance writer in Fort Wayne who writes frequently about health and medicine. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.
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Refugee Summit 2016: a Focus on Health Care, is 7:45 a.m.- 4 p.m. Sept. 21 at The Summit, 1025 W. Rudisill Blvd. Cost is $25 and includes breakfast and lunch; a limited number of scholarships are available for students in health-care professions.
Register at: http://events.constantcontact.com/register/event?llr=igt75jwab&oeidk=a07eczzsnn83594bfe1.
Continuing education credits are available for physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and nurses. For more information, email Melissa Rinehart at firstname.lastname@example.org..