JVS helps refugees face bewildering U.S. health system

Refugees come to Kansas City from countries all over the world — Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burundi, Burma, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. Their first view of Kansas City is through the windows of a jet landing at Kansas City International Airport, usually late at night because they’ve been routed through the cheapest voyage possible — touching down on numerous U.S. cities before landing at our local airport.

They are the lucky ones, however. Of the estimated 20 million refugees worldwide, only 2 percent get resettled, and the average waiting time in a refugee camp is 15 years. Even though they are greeted at the airport by JVS staff, that first night in Kansas City is a mixture of joy, fatigue, exhilaration and anxiety. They have already experienced extreme deprivation and the brutalizing treatment of their family and communities. What awaits them now is the chance for a peaceful life, but not one without enormous challenges and uncertainty.

In the next number of weeks they will need the help of JVS to receive health check-ups, to apply for Social Security numbers, to enroll their children in schools, find a job, learn Kansas City bus routes and much more.

JVS’s Refugee Immigrant Health Access Project, supported by the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City is a key factor in a refugee’s ability to not only survive the grueling resettlement process, but also to obtain maximum health so that they can support their families and thrive in their new city.

JVS provides coordination of health care screening services for new refugees to determine any outstanding health issues and to schedule immunizations. We also help refugees navigate health care follow-up appointments for routine and acute care before their Medicaid assistance expires in eight months. The program offers orientation and instruction about how to access health care services, including preventive care. Many of us who have lived in the United States since birth are confused by the health care system—imagine the bewilderment a new refugee faces!

While Medicaid assistance is supported for eight months, refugees receive help with living expenses for three months. Like many Americans, refugees have debts to worry about immediately: they will need to pay back an interest-free loan on the cost of their airline ticket, and for some families that can be as high as $1000 per family member. Within a few months they assume responsibility for payment of all the expenses needed to take care of a home and family. By that time, the majority of refugees arriving to Kansas City are working in light manufacturing and hotel-cleaning jobs.

The need for ongoing services and advocacy still remains, and JVS can assist a new refugee for up to five years. Friendships and connections last much longer, however, and many people from all over the world who first arrived as refugees, become permanent legal residents and then naturalized citizens through the support JVS provides. The Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City is a large part of ensuring the health and well-being of these new community members in Kansas City.


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HCF's Local Health Buzz Blog aims to discuss health and health policy issues that impact the uninsured and underserved in our service area. To submit a blog, please contact HCF Communications Officers, Jennifer Sykes, at jsykes@hcfgkc.org.

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