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Upstate’s Refugee Health Clinic is an integral part of resettlement process for Afghan refugees coming to Syracuse

To say the Refugee Health clinical service at Upstate’s University Health Care Center is busy is an understatement.

Syracuse has always been a sanctuary city, embracing and supporting the arrival of immigrants and refugees, but this year, Syracuse is anticipating more new arrivals than it has in years.

The two lead resettlement organizations (Catholic Charities of Onondaga County and Interfaith Works) were already poised to accept 1,400 refugee arrivals, when a global crisis in Afghanistan increased demands and 250 new Afghan arrivals were accepted this year to start a new life in Syracuse.

As the international crisis unfolded and the local resettlement community reached out for medical support, Upstate stepped up to the plate.  In less than one month from seeing human tragedy across international news, Upstate met its first Afghan families in early September. Upstate’s internal medicine and pediatric clinics shuffled their already busy medical teams to ask “how can we help?”

The Refugee Health team at Upstate, led by Andrea Shaw, MD, is currently meeting more than 10 new Afghani patients each week to ensure timely health screenings, immunization updates, and rapid integration into primary care. 

The team includes staff from internal medicine and pediatric clinics, residents, and Farsi and Pashto-speaking medical and pre-medical students who joined the effort to introduce 250 Afghan arrivals to a medical home.  These new arrivals are in addition to the weekly refugee families that routinely establish care at Upstate arriving from sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

“Whether our patients are fleeing a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan or spent the last decade in a refugee camp, they all come from a traumatic past and face significant barriers to assimilation upon arrival in Syracuse,” Shaw said. “Our medical team is privileged to work with dedicated community partners in this effort. It truly ‘takes a village’ to do this work well.”

Communication in healthcare is essential and the Refugee Health team knows there will always be “one more step” to ensure that a patient with low health literacy truly understands a plan.

Shaw says, despite a small staff and limited resources, the Upstate team works with patience, kindness, and compassion to build bridges of trust, essential to understanding and supporting a patient population that speaks more than 40 registered languages.

“Most people come to us from a place across the globe where they would only seek medical care if they were really sick; rarely engaged with preventative care or chronic disease management with little acknowledgment that mental health may be a concern,” Shaw noted.

One of the biggest challenges for Shaw and her colleagues is introducing a highly diverse patient population into a complex health system.

This is difficult work, Shaw said, “But the rewards are great, especially when you see a group of people thrive and contribute to a safe new life here,” Shaw said.

The future for this clinic is bright as it transitions to the Center for International Health, which will be its new home in the future Nappi Wellness Institute, set to open spring 2023.

Caption: Members of Upstate's Refugee Clinic team are front row, from left: Mary Jo Lakomski  RPH,  Andrea Shaw, MD, Ayan Mohamed PA. Middle row, from left: Mariya Collins, Mairbeth Schoeneck and Dawn Kelly. Back row, from left: Liban Mohamed, Sarah Bartnicki LMSW, Nicole Mozo RN.