May 20, 2019
Thoai Nguyen was a 9-year-old Vietnamese refugee when South Philadelphia first became his home in June 1975.
Nguyen remembers entering a thriving neighborhood full of community resources. But three years later, a national recession hit Southeast Philly hard and those resources dried up. An influx of immigrants moved in, but without much political clout, the resources did not quickly return.
"For the next four decades, it became an afterthought," said Nguyen, the chief executive officer of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition (SEAMAAC). "Parks closed down. Community centers closed down. Libraries would be shut down. Schools got defunded."
On Monday, Nguyen had cause for celebration. South Philly is receiving its first permanent, freestanding health service center dedicated to refugees.
Jefferson Health and the Philadelphia Collaborative for Health Equity announced plans to establish the Hansjörg Wyss Wellness Center inside the Bok building, a former school at Ninth and Mifflin streets that now houses more than 150 businesses across its 120,000 square feet.
Expected to open early next year, the center will serve the neighborhood's immigrant and refugee population regardless of their health insurance or citizenship status. The nonprofit Wyss Foundation donated $3.1 million to launch the center, which aims to reduce health disparity gaps among refugees and immigrants.
The center will serve as an extension of Jefferson's Center for Refugee Health, a Center City clinic that specifically serves refugees, asylum seekers and victims of trafficking. Many of the clinic's patients live in the areas surrounding the Bok building.
By meeting refugees in their community, Jefferson will better equip them to navigate the health care system by offering educational programs and health fairs after regular clinical hours. Additionally, community health workers will be on hand to assist the refugees.
"If you have a Bhutanese refugee or immigrant who is a diabetic, there's certain foods they can and cannot eat," Altshuler said. "Why not have them come to our office and then maybe take them to the corner store that they shop at to find culturally appropriate foods that are going to help them manage their diabetes? It's a lot harder when we're in our office in Center City to tell them where to go."
Language barriers often prove to be the biggest hurdle preventing refugees from accessing health care, Altshuler said. At the Wyss Wellness Center, patients will be connected to social services offered by SEAMAAC, which has served refugees for more than 35 years.
Nguyen called the wellness center a "game-changer" that will make a huge difference in the community, where many of refugees and immigrants are of Southeast Asian descent.
"In a time when there is so much anti-immigrant fervor whipped up by this current (presidential) administration," Nguyen said, "It is very, very important that an organization, like Jefferson, can partner with an organization like SEAMAAC to be the beacon of light for people who are completely neglected and completely scapegoated for all the problems of this country."
The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program provides refugees with six months of medical care. But Altshuler said many refugees struggle to access care. When Jefferson opened its Center for Refugee Health in 2007, some refugees were waiting as long as 120 days to be seen.
Now, wait times are much shorter. At least seven other medical sites in the Philadelphia region have since opened clinics for refugees.
Jefferson's Center for Refugee Health, which has helped more than 2,000 refugees from more than 50 countries, is the largest. With the Wyss Wellness Center, Jefferson hopes to provide additional help.
"We want to be able to take care of everyone and have a welcoming community center where we can not only provide health care services but general wellness," Altshuler said. "Really, it's going to be dictated by what the community needs."
Medical experts once considered infectious disease to be the chief concern among refugee populations, Altshuler said. But research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since shown that chronic issues perhaps pose greater concerns.
"They have the high blood pressure, they have the diabetes," Altshuler said. "But they may not have the access to all the same services that everyone else does. In addition, you want to make sure the treatment, whether it's a diet or lifestyle medication, is culturally appropriate."
Within five years, Altshuler said he hopes the Wyss Wellness Center will have become a federally-qualified health center accommodating as many as 6,000 visits per year. The clinical aspect of the center will operate on Monday through Friday, with educational programming occurring on weeknights and weekends.