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Westborough Women’s Club hears stories, needs of refugees

Edith Witherell, Noreen Johnson Smith and Judith Hall at Westborough Women's Club meeting. Photo by Ann Kenda

The life experiences and health needs of refugees resettling in Worcester was the focus of the November luncheon meeting of the Women’s Club in Westborough.

Noreen Johnson Smith, who resides in Westborough and serves as vice president of development and advancement at Family Health Center of Worcester, offered an update on the 43-year-old health center, which serves people in poverty, people who lack transportation or may not know their way around Worcester, and people who need translation to their native language.

“You can’t deliver healthcare if you can’t communicate effectively,” said Smith.

She said the staff speaks dozens of languages, and all signs are in universal medical symbols. After English, she said the top languages spoken among patients and staff include Spanish, Vietnamese and Portuguese. Sign language interpretation is also offered, and all services are handicapped-accessible.

“No one is illegal. They are undocumented, often for very good reason,” said Smith while describing the center’s 29,000 patients and nutrition clients.

“We teach them how to use the American health care system, so they don’t just go to the emergency room because that’s the only way they know to get care,” said Smith.

She said services include same-day urgent care, chronic disease management, digital mammography, HIV services, prenatal care and dental services that would be hard to access without adequate insurance or transportation to appointments.

“Sometimes people say we have enough refugees, so let me put that in perspective,” said Smith, who described a refugee as a type of immigrant who had to flee violence or persecution and cannot return to their home country.

“These are people who don’t have a choice. It’s often done by their own government,” said Smith, who showed a picture of a Central African Republic couple who lost their first son and had to bury him next to where they slept. At Family Health Center, they had another child and are doing much better today, she said.

“These people cannot go home, so the world has to find a place for them,” said Smith, who described Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a common diagnosis among patients.

She got a little tearful as she described looking into the refrigerator of a pregnant woman, and finding that she had only a single can of tomato paste to eat and, without a can opener, had tried to stab the can open with a knife.

Smith, who was a volunteer with the Peace Corps in the Central African Region and a recipient of a YWCA Erskine award in 2014, offered to help participants of the meeting find volunteer opportunities if they would like to be a friend to a family new to the country.

“People want to go where there are jobs, where they’ll be welcome and where they won’t be persecuted,” said Smith.

Participants of Tuesday’s meeting, which was held at First United Methodist Church, were invited to bring a holiday gift for a veteran. Suggestions included cinema gift cards, sports-themed shirts in men’s large sizes and toiletries for women. Membership in the Women’s Club is open to all women who are at least 18 and who are interested in contributing to the betterment of Westborough.


Ann Kenda

Wicked Local Westborough