Improving Health for Iraqi Refugees

When calculating the costs of war, we often neglect the health and economic costs of traumatized immigrants coming to the U.S. as refugees from violent, and prolonged, conflicts in places such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Despite being tens of thousands of miles from the war zone, Oregon’s Iraqi population is still struggling with the resonating consequences of violence and displacement. Many who sought refuge and asylum in the United States from the first Iraq war continue to deal with lingering trauma - more than twenty years after immigration.

Research shows that refugees from wars and civil conflicts are particularly vulnerable to ill health. The Iraqi Society of Oregon (ISO) is dedicated to helping immigrants deal with the trauma they experienced in their home country, the culture shock of adapting to new lifestyles and systems, and economic and social isolation they still experience today. These challenges have been identified as “triple factors” of trauma that make so many immigrants vulnerable to ill health.

In December 2011, the Iraqi Society of Oregon received a $50,000 capacity-building grant from the Kaiser Permanente Community Fund to gain social, psychological, and medical support for Iraqi immigrants. “This project will work on researching, educating, and healing the immigrants and refugees so they gain life skills for a positive health attitude and create a change to seek a healthy lifestyle,” said Baher Butti, executive director.

“Many traumas take place, and most are not dealt with properly.”

Even after 20 years, the Iraqi population of Oregon still experiences high levels of poverty, poor health, and isolation, much of it a result of the different phases of loss that they went through in the refugee process. “The local Iraqi community lives in isolation,” Butti says.  “Most arrived as early as the 1990s, after the first Gulf War.”

Baher Butti was a practicing psychiatrist in Iraq until he fled from the most recent war in 2006. He was exiled in Jordan when Dr. David Kinzie, a professor of psychiatry at OHSU, invited him to a world conference to speak about the psychological trauma. Dr. Kinzie ultimately helped him find asylum in the U.S.

Through the Kaiser Permanente Community Fund, the Iraqi Society, the Center for Intercultural Organization, and the Beaverton Mayor’s Office are now working collaboratively to respond to the Iraqi population’s needs by coordinating culturally-specific services, mental health, city government, and schools. This solution moves Iraqi immigrant “upstream” by bringing together social and economic integration with a holistic mental health approach.

“Health inequities are reflected in unjust distribution of resources, power, and opportunities that lead to poor health outcomes for the refugees and immigrants,” said Butti, “However, this project is solution oriented, and aims to achieve multicultural health equity through community members, community organization, and policy and system change.”

“There is an honest desire from the larger community to reach out to new communities, especially refugees and immigrants.”

While the wider community will now have the opportunity to connect with the Iraqi community, Butti says the newcomers have a responsibility too.

“Inclusiveness is a mutual process where people provide support and embrace the newcomers to facilitate their healing,” said Butti, adding, “and the new comers will contribute with their values, and productivity, and even historical background to the new community.”