How has the pandemic affected the immigrants and former refugees who call Columbus home?

In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, the city’s foreign-born communities seemed particularly vulnerable. Large families often live in close quarters or in multigenerational residences ripe for spread. Even when living separately, close cultural ties can make it difficult to isolate elders and those at risk. And as the state prepared to shut down, community leaders had to figure out how to disseminate crucial public health information to people speaking many languages, some of whom aren’t literate, even in their native tongues.

Columbus Public Health commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts says the strategy for spreading the word was to depend on resettlement agencies and other organizations that are trusted in refugee and immigrant communities. Communications specialist Emily Locke from the US Together resettlement agency developed Covid-19 training for case managers and created a webpage that compiled multilingual resources on self-isolation, cleaning practices, the stay-at-home order and other topics. At Community Refugee & Immigration Services—or CRIS, another resettlement agency—case managers recorded shareable video clips, which offered guidance from a familiar face in languages without much advice available, like Swahili. Each day, US Together developed a one-page, bulleted document filled with reliable information, translated it into eight languages and distributed it to partners citywide.

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Luckily, word got out. Christine Garcia, US Together’s director of programs, says clients have done well with sheltering in place. The health data doesn’t provide specific stats to compare infection rates in these communities to the population at large, but Roberts says she isn’t aware of any concentrated pockets of outbreak. The resettlement agencies aren’t either. “The only thing that we’ve heard is that people are afraid,” Garcia says.

Fear could be related to being in positions of elevated risk. “A lot of our new Americans are in those jobs where they continue working—in stores, in packaging, in other places on front lines,” says Nadia Kasvin, US Together’s co-founder.

Many new Americans are economically vulnerable, and both resettlement agencies have assigned staffers to help clients file unemployment claims. CRIS is trying to provide aid for those with delayed unemployment benefits or food stamps; people still need to eat while they wait, says executive director Angie Plummer. The agency has been coordinating food pickups from St. Stephen’s Community House and meal deliveries through LifeCare Alliance for senior clients. Though eviction proceedings were placed in limbo, Plummer worries about what happens if people are unable to make payments. The specter of the coronavirus spreading through overcrowded living spaces—a poverty issue not unique to new Americans, she says—will only get worse if families are forced to double up.

Despite the slew of challenges, new Americans have responded accordingly. Plummer theorizes that past experiences—disease outbreaks in home countries or years in limbo in refugee camps—have made them better prepared for such extraordinary circumstances. While Kasvin is worried about former refugees becoming retraumatized by the pandemic, she agrees that they are resilient, not only as individuals but as a community. She recalls a recent conversation with someone who lived through a genocide. “What we survived, you cannot go lower than that,” he told her. “We will survive this too.”

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