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Catholic Charities' Refugee Services creates COVID-19 Team to increase access to vaccines

Posted by | Brittney Manchester, Communications Director

Oregon has a diverse and growing refugee and migrant community. Refugees and migrants make up 10% of the Oregon population, and an additional 11% of Oregonians have at least one immigrant parent. Most refugees in Oregon came from the Ukraine, Somalia, Myanmar, Iraq, Bhutan, Russia, Moldova, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Oregon is also home to many asylum seekers from Central America, which has contributed to substantial growth of our indigenous communities. Refugee and migrant Oregonians experience enormous disparities in overall health and economic stability related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those communities also face well-known barriers to receiving vaccinations.

Refugees and migrants are less likely to have access to culturally appropriate and linguistically accurate information about the COVID-19 vaccine than non-migrants; state and local healthcare systems are also less likely to have engaged with those communities. Additionally, the service and access barriers those communities face make finding trusted and accurate information about the vaccine, or access to the vaccine itself, extremely difficult. If not addressed, those barriers likely will result in lost opportunities to save lives.

Catholic Charities of Oregon has partnered with the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) to help spread the word about vaccine scams. As COVID-19 vaccines have become more readily available, the DOJ has urged Oregonians to be cautious of scams, fraud, and other threats; the DOJ has also shared tips on how you can spot and avoid COVID-19 vaccine scams. Catholic Charities of Oregon has simultaneously promoted that message to our audiences through social media.

Furthermore, Catholic Charities of Oregon’s Refugee Services Program created a COVID-19 team that works to provide different refugee and immigrant communities specially tailored engagement strategies around vaccine options and how to find vaccination appointments. Funded by the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), the team is made up of members of the Oregon community who have trusted relationships within their communities, can successfully engage with their fellow community members, and provide outreach around the vaccine and other COVID-19-related issues, including how to stay safe from the virus, what do if you’ve been exposed, where to go for personal protective equipment (PPE), and more.

The COVID-19 team is both a culturally specific and language specific team that works with the Rohingya, Zomi, Somali, and Congolese communities. Because the consequences of COVID-19 are potentially fatal, being able to share complex medical information in one’s first language is crucial.

Let’s meet the team:

Chomba Kaluba

Chomba is originally from Zambia and has a background in conflict transformation and sustainable development. He has been working for Catholic Charities since January as an immigrant and refugee community engagement specialist.

  • Which specific population do you work with on the COVID-19 team?
    African Communities – Congolese (DRC)
  • Why is the work you are doing on the COVID-19 team so important?
    “It is significant work. COVID-19 has brought social isolation and it can be extremely hard for our community members to access credible information and essentials while they are in quarantine/isolation without the support of COVID-19 Community Engagement Specialists. As a COVID-19 team, we are collaborating with community leaders, faith leaders, BIPOC and health professionals to develop systems to amplify our outreach and engagement with our communities. We are also working tirelessly to ensure that our communities are provided with credible resources regarding COVID-19 and its vaccine.”
Abidah Jamaluddin

Abidah, who goes by the nickname Ida, was born in Myanmar. She left her homeland in 2004 and lived in Thailand briefly before moving to Malaysia in 2005 and ultimately to the U.S. in 2016. Ida currently lives in Portland, OR, with her husband and three daughters. She has volunteered at the Rosewood Initiative, Portland Meet Portland, and has worked as a Rohingya and Burmese Organizer. Ida also studied at Portland Community College for one year. Ida began working at Catholic Charities in January as a COVID-19 community outreach and support specialist. Ida also currently works at Linguava as an interpreter for Rohingya, Burmese, Hindi, and Malaysian.

  • Which specific population do you work with on the COVID-19 team?
    Rohingya, Burmese, Hindi, and Malaysian
  • Why is the work you are doing on the COVID-19 team so important?
    “I love to help people. In my role at Catholic Charities, I help my community members when they have to quarantine or isolate because of COVID-19. I also help people sign up for the vaccine and I share informational updates and resources regarding COVID-19 in the language they speak.”

Lung Wah Lazum

Lung Wah is originally from Myanmar (known as Burma), but he’s been living in Portland since 2019. Lung graduated from the Medical University in Myanmar and would like to continue his career in healthcare services or public healthcare here in the U.S. He is currently studying in the MBA program at George Fox University, after transferring there from the healthcare MBA program at Concordia University, and is also simultaneously attending Oregon State University’s Community Health Worker Training program. Long has been working for Catholic Charities since January as a COVID-19 community outreach and support specialist.

  • Which specific population do you work with on the COVID-19 team?
    Multiethnic communities from Myanmar including Burmese, Kachin, Chin (Zomi ethnic group is a majority group in Portland), Kayah, Mon, Rakhine, Shan, Burmese Muslims, Rohingya, and other Burmese Language talking people from Myanmar
  • Why is the work you are doing on the COVID-19 team so important?
    “Since we have many ethnic groups from Myanmar living in Portland, it is very important to give proper health education and healthcare services to every person from each community – some of the people have access to wraparound assistance, but many do not. Our COVID-19 wraparound services are very important and helpful for those people who need to quarantine or isolate because of the virus.”

Mohamed S. Ali

Mohamed has been working at Catholic Charities of Oregon for six months as a COVID-19 community outreach and support specialist. His responsibilities include providing education about COVID-19, isolation and quarantine procedures to community members, scheduling vaccine appointments, hosting vaccine clinics, and helping to provide wraparound services, case management and referrals. Mohamed is also a Resident Services Coordinator with Hacienda CDC. Furthermore, Mohamed is the Imam of his local Masjid, Masjid An-Noor Islamic Center located in Northeast Portland, where he teaches and gives Friday sermons.

  • Which specific population do you work with on the COVID-19 team?
    African community specifically the Somalis. Mohamed speaks Somali, Swahili, Maymay, Brava, Bajooni and some Arabic.
  • Why is the work you are doing on the COVID-19 team so important?
    “I am helping individuals, families and members of my community stay healthy and safe and I am able to support them with vital and much needed services. The work I do is a lifeline because I am serving the underserved population and providing a positive impact on the community and society at large. Being an active, involved, and engaged member of my community enables me to assist members of my community with support, life skills and knowledge, as well as providing essential resources and services to those that need it most. I will spare no efforts to strive for the betterment of all and I will bring energy, inclusiveness, enthusiasm, respect, tolerance and understanding.”

Expanded vaccination efforts have made a difference to hundreds throughout the Portland area

The team has made great progress since its inception. They’ve been able to sign up hundreds of community members for vaccines and transport people to their vaccine appointments. They’ve also delivered food and medicine to individuals who’ve had to quarantine. Furthermore, the team has provided access to rental and utility assistance so people can stay home if they’ve been exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19.

Our COVID-19 Team supports vaccine events across Oregon with our other community partners and is working with Clackamas County on a video campaign to encourage community members to get vaccinated. “We’re excited to strengthen and deepen our partnership with the Oregon Health Authority in creating programs that serve refugees and immigrants and in addressing public health disparities and inequalities,” said Matthew Westerbeck, Director of Refugee Services at Catholic Charities of Oregon.

Feeling inspired? Learn more about our Refugee Services program and give today.