In the past six years, more refugees have resettled in Texas than in any other state in the country. The State of Texas has pulled out of the refugee resettlement program citing concerns over terrorism. That leaves many private and non-profit groups to provide the many refugee needs, everything from clothing to English classes to medical care. The largest student-run clinic reaching out to refugees is in San Antonio.
The medical, dental and nursing schools at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio have teamed up to operate the only student-run refugee clinic in the country.
Each Wednesday, at St. Francis Episcopal Church on the city’s North Side, dozens of refugees from all over the world come for free care at the Refugee Health Clinic. People from the Middle East, southern Africa and Asia.
They have fled violence and persecution. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 refugees live within three miles of San Antonio’s Medical Center. Most who resettle here receive temporary federal government health benefits that run out after six months or so. Then what?
"So, we really, really fill that gap before they can kind of get on their feet after they’ve lost their government benefits," explained Michael Tcheyan, a medical student. He said he is disappointed Texas has pulled out of the refugee program over safety concerns.
"Politics is what it is. But as doctors, as people who can bear witness to people who are suffering, we feel like it’s our duty and it’s their right to get medical care and to be connected with services that are going to make their life better," Tcheyan added. "They’re fleeing from persecution. A lot of them have been living in refugee camps overseas for many years before coming here. They’re here to start a new life."
Layla Mohsin, 52, came to the clinic for dental care. A teacher, she came from Iraq to America with her family of seven to escape the threat of violence.
"We left Iraq and came to the United States because there is safety here. There there is no safety," said Mohsin in Arabic through an interpreter. "The main concern? The lethal explosive cars. You can get caught by an explosive car at any place, any time."
Laxmi Adhikari, a 65-year-old man who fled Bhutan to a refugee camp in Nepal, is being treated for an itchy, stubborn rash. He sports a T-shirt with a local high school team logo, a gift he says, from one of the many people in San Antonio who has welcomed him with open arms.
"It’s far better than the refugee camp," Adhikari said in Nepali through his interpreter. "I trust and believe that all of the nurses and doctors, they treat me very well."
For the healthcare students, mostly in their 20s and 30s, working at the clinic has changed their world perspective.
"All people really do deserve care. Although they can’t afford it, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it," stated nursing student Christina Potts. "All those things that you hear in the mass media does not connect to these refugees at all."
Dental student Eduardo Vela is originally from another country, too. He understands his patients’ challenges.
"If you don’t know the language, there’s a lot of cultural differences," Vela explained. "I, myself, grew up in Mexico so I know a little bit of the feeling of being an outsider and then trying to fit in."
Refugee Health Clinic Medical Director Browning Wayman, MD, says the needs of this population are great. "They are in search of people to manage their high blood pressure, their diabetes, their high cholesterol, thyroid disease, mental health issues," Wayman spelled out. "For a lot of us that went into medicine, we went into it to help people. This is a population that needs help and so it’s really a joy."
The refugees don’t use the free clinic forever. The clinic staff helps them find more permanent care. Navigating the healthcare system can be difficult even for Americans, says one of the clinic’s founders, Andrew Muck, MD.
"You don’t speak the language, may not have a job. And even though you’re in the midst of this robust health system, you can’t get in the door, can’t get over those hurdles," Muck said.
Even if the state government in Texas isn’t welcoming refugees with open arms these days, doctor-in-training Tcheyan certainly is.
He said, "The first thing I do when I come to the clinic and I have a patient is I say 'Welcome to our clinic. We’re really happy you’re in this country. We want to do everything we can to help you.'"
Texas will continue to be home to new refugees. But instead of giving financial assistance to the state, the Office of Refugee Resettlement will be giving that money directly to non-profits.