Regardless of cultural and linguistic differences, several Jackson Heights community members are assisting fellow immigrants with navigating previous unknowns such as the American healthcare system, helping to bridge previous barriers so that they can take advantage of all that their new home has to offer.
QUEENS, NEW YORK- The Roosevelt Avenue subway station exit leads right into the heart of Diversity Plaza, conveniently located in the center of the neighborhood. This corner of New York City transports you to multiple different continents at once, with the aroma of Indian spices floating through the air as tamales are being sold on the street corner and Buddhist monks walk into a temple right next door. This is Jackson Heights, the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in all of New York, and possibly the world.
But in many cases, the foreign born citizens that make up communities such as Jackson Heights are excluded from the opportunity to gain adequate healthcare access; in some cases by design and in others because of a range of barriers including language, cultural norms, and affordability.
In an attempt to combat this issue, in June of 2014, then New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a task force on Immigrant Health Care Access with the goal of increasing access to healthcare services among immigrant populations. The task force assisted immigrants with obtaining affordable health insurance and increasing access to primary health care providers.
While the creation of the task force was certainly a step in the right direction, many immigrants, including those residing in Jackson Heights, still had a sense of distrust towards the American healthcare system due to their lack of English fluency, access to reliable translation services, and cultural differences when it came to treatment options.
This is where Jackson Heights citizens like Ratan Shariff stepped in.
Originally hailing from Dhaka, Bangladesh, Shariff’s fluency in 5 languages has only furthered his ability to best assist his diverse array of clientele. Working out of a bright orange, modernly furnished office on wheels on the bustling streets of Jackson Heights, Shariff offers insurance services on behalf of the statewide insurance company, Wellcare. While the company does have actual offices, the van’s spread out across the area like Shariff’s have greatly increased the amount of people Wellcare is able to reach and assist, as they have discovered that customers are much more likely to spontaneously pop into a van on their way home from grocery shopping than setting time aside in their day to go into their physical buildings. He serves mainly the Southeast Asian and Latino communities, educating them on insurance services like Medicare, which, according to him, “they come to this country most of the time completely unaware of.”
Shariff knows that the majority of the customers who come to him arrive with a distrust of the American healthcare system, something he tries to combat by building a relationship with his clients in order to gain their trust. He helps each person who steps into his “office” choose the insurance plan that is right for them, also helping with translation of paperwork and phone conversations.
More than 1 million New Yorkers remain uninsured today, a problem that Shariff is attempting to chip away at little by little, knowing the benefits that health insurance can provide people with, especially those who came from countries where such benefits were nonexistent.
It is not just immigrants from other countries that Jackson Heights attracts, but those from far away U.S. states as well. Alabama native Robin Brantley is an intern at the Southeast Asian Community Center, located nearly 1,000 miles from home in a single room filled with natural light and possibilities. Following what she described as God’s calling for her to provide service to the Southeast Asian community, Brantley has been teaching ESL through Christian volunteering organization “Multiply” for the past few weeks on her second trip to Jackson Heights, in which she has fallen even more in love with the community than the first time.
Aside from basic English shopping and family terms, medical terminology is taught to attendees, as the center understands the importance of encouraging their clientele to find and trust reliable healthcare practitioners in the area. They also recognize that without a solid way of communicating, many immigrants are reluctant to receive medical care in the first place.
Recently, a cardiologist of Southeast Asian descent, came to speak to the class about the importance of heart checkups and maintaining a healthy diet. Educating the class about these essentials is something that the center hopes to do more and more often with different types of doctors as well, especially with people whom the clientele can feel a stronger connection to.
Brantley hopes to eventually call the neighborhood home one day, but being unable to speak another language, she admitted that she “would feel nervous going to a doctor in Jackson Heights.” Growing up in a small town where she knew the doctor and everyone else in town personally, visiting a doctor in Jackson Heights, Brantley knows, would be a much different experience.
Although Brantley is not an immigrant from a different country, her sentiments echo those of foreign-born adults residing in New York City, as 69% of them are less likely to have a regular care provider. As a result, death rates among foreign groups in New York City exceed the U.S. born death rate.
Knowing the challenges that the people she teaches face outside the classroom as well, Brantley is determined to make an impact on a community that has already begun to form a truly meaningful place in her heart. “I have a southern accent which stands out, “ she said, “but everyone else here also has an accent.” She paused, a grin spread across her face-“I love that”.
Dr. Ivan Khan, owner of Khan’s Tutoring in Jackson Heights, provides much more than tutoring to the children that he serves. His medical doctorate has enabled and encouraged him to tie promoting physical wellness classes into his business as well. As a first generation American, Khan recognizes the fact that many immigrants need assistance in navigating the American healthcare system.
“I told my parents that I wanted to make an impact on this world.” Khan said. His way of doing so is personally encouraging the parents of the children he tutors to not shy away from raising their voice when they feel that something is different about their child, a difficult task when “in general, immigrants already have a distrust for the general healthcare system.” Khan paused before adding – “Heck, a lot of Americans do as well.”
One of the specific issues closest to Khan is the lack of special needs awareness and care for children in immigrant communities in Jackson Heights. “I don’t think special needs care exists in Jackson Heights, unfortunately.” Khan said.
As a parent himself, Khan can attest to the fact that parents usually are aware when something is going on with their child. But for immigrant parents, things are a bit different. If they don’t trust the American healthcare system themselves, why would they trust it to care for their children? “You’ve made it to America, and now you’re already an American psychologist? You really think that adapting and accepting American healthcare norms is the way to go?” is a mindset that immigrant parents commonly find themselves battling against.
To Khan, in order for such mindsets to change, immigrants young and old, single or married, with children or without, “must be made aware of the resources available for them.”
“And if that resource doesn’t exist,” he added. “Then it needs to be created.”