This isn’t really health-related, but it is still relevant to our growing city.

As we watch the news and see more and more pictures and stories about the refugee crisis in Europe, many of us feel helpless, because we just have no way we can help them. However, here in Harrisonburg, we have our own large number of refugees who have been resettled in the last several years. While they may not have made the national and international news, they have still come here from terrible situations in their home countries. They usually have suffered not only fighting in their own countries. Many have also suffered in refugee camps they were forced to flee to and wait in while undergoing the scrutinizing process prior to being resettled in the west. Even the immigrants who live here, documented or undocumented, came here because of poor living and economic situations in their home countries.

I used to live and work in Lincoln, Nebraska, a town that is like a larger version of Harrisonburg. There was a very large population of refugees and immigrants as well as the University of Nebraska with its own large population of international students. Many of you may have read the book by the best-selling writer, Mary Pipher, titled The Middle of Everywhere, about the refugee and immigrant community in Lincoln.

It doesn’t take much to help these individuals. We don’t have to spend hours a week volunteering just to make them feel more welcome and at home. There are lots of little things we can do instead.

Things like speaking English slowly, but not loudly, to them. Other little things that can make a big difference are not tapping your foot or sighing loudly when you’re in a line behind them at the grocery store. They may not understand English well, but they aren’t deaf. Gently helping them count out their money as they struggle to figure out which bills they need to use. Slowly pointing things out to them if they seem confused, trying to always be on time, and using every mistake as a learning experience.

We in the health care industry forget that these individuals are coming from places where they can just walk in anytime to see the doctor. Instead of lecturing them about how a one day old rash or cough is not necessarily a reason they need to be seen right away, we can use that time to gently find out why they felt that they needed to see someone right away. Keep in mind that in their own countries, a rash or a cough could have indicated a serious illness. And just by learning about these fears, it can make us all better providers.

The most important thing we can all do is to treat them like human beings. It’s so easy to grumble about why they don’t learn English. But any of us who have traveled to non-English speaking countries know how difficult it is to get around when few people speak your language. We know how difficult it is to calculate how many pesos or dinars we have and which bill is which when the numbers are written differently. Taking a taxi or asking for directions can be a huge challenge. Even if we stay there for several weeks or months, we might return only speaking a few words in the language of the country we were in. And why is that? Because naturally, we gravitate toward people who can speak English and understand us. It’s not that easy to learn a foreign language.

Most refugees and immigrants are grateful that they were given the opportunity to have a better life in a country where they don’t have to feel afraid every time a police car passes them on the road or when their child comes home with a mild cough. They want to give back to this country by working hard and by studying/learning English. Many of them use the money they earn to send to their families back home which indirectly helps those economies. We are fortunate to live in such a diverse community where we can learn about each other and learn to work together.