Compassion for Refugees Leads to Gratifying Volunteerism and Important Research
An immigrant himself, Madhav Bhatta, PhD, (Assistant Professor) engaged with Bhutanese refugees in 2009 after they began arriving in Summit County from Nepal. Twice removed from their homeland due to political and religious persecution, the refugees needed guidance from community members who understood their culture. Dr. Bhatta, an epidemiologist specializing in infectious diseases, stepped in immediately to volunteer in an informal social work capacity and has been assisting ever since.
“The resettled refugees face many challenges once in the United State. In terms of their health, I find that access to culturally appropriate care, and chronic disease prevention, control, and management especially pose long-term challenges for these new immigrants. During the resettlement process, they are screened for and, if diagnosed, treated for many infectious diseases. However, not much attention is paid to chronic disease prevention and control including nutrition education,” he said. Dr. Bhatta explained that ice cream, soda, and other fast foods—plentiful in America—are luxury items in Nepal for an average person. Thus the resettled refugees often see these foods as “good” as well as inexpensive.
Dr. Bhatta received a $10,000 grant for a pilot to study the dietary acculturation process and health impact of changing diet of among resettled refugee families and determined that half of the women respondents were overweight, which potentially impacts chronic diseases. Dr. Bhatta, along with Sunita Shakya, a doctoral student in epidemiology, in collaboration with Akron Children’s Hospital, also are studying blood lead levels in resettled Bhutanese children who came from the Nepalese refugee camps. The study found that a higher proportion of these children had an elevated blood lead than the U.S. population, most likely due to environmental exposure in Nepal. They continued to be at a higher risk of lead exposure due to poor housing conditions post-resettlement. Interviews with the families conducted by graduate students Sunita Shakya and Diana Kingsbury indicated that language barriers and economic situations typically situated respondents in positions in which they had little recourse with negligent building owners or little influence over their situation.
Overall, Dr. Bhatta’s ongoing public and academic scholarship with the refugee population provides him the opportunity to examine the types of social networks immigrants form and how these networks help them navigate health-related issues.