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"I witnessed first-hand the struggles immigrants face when they arrive in this country," says Schweitzer Fellow Toy Lim.

As an immigrant herself, Toy Lim has a hard-earned perspective on the challenges facing individuals and communities who are newly arrived in the United States: “Many of these families escaped the devastations of civil wars and conflicts in their home country only to encounter new hardships in the United States,” Lim says. “They face poverty, social isolation, unemployment, and powerlessness.”

Lim—one of two Schweitzer Fellows selected from the University of Massachusetts Graduate School of Nursing this year (click here to read an earlier interview with Lim’s classmate Meredith Walsh)—is doing her part to equip Worcester’s immigrant communities with the tools and confidence to address those new hardships. As a Schweitzer Fellow, Lim has partnered with African Community Education (ACE) to establish support groups that empower African refugees to become active citizens in their communities—and ultimately improve their mental, physical, and social well-being.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

My decision to develop a project working with refugees/immigrants began as a personal one. As an immigrant, I witnessed first-hand the struggles immigrants face when they arrive in this country. I wanted to use my Fellowship year to improve the lives of these newcomer communities.

When I met with community leaders and organizations working with immigrant populations in Worcester, I discovered there was a growing refugee community with families arriving from many parts of Africa including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and Somalia.  Many of these families escaped the devastations of civil wars and conflicts in their home country only to encounter new hardships in the United States. They face poverty, social isolation, unemployment, and powerlessness.

The goal of my Schweitzer project is to empower refugees to become active citizens in their communities by working together to overcome the challenges they face in their new home. By creating mutual assistance groups, I hope to bring refugees together to reduce social isolation while developing collective resources that will benefit entire communities.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

I hope the refugee communities will feel more empowered to advocate for the necessary changes to thrive in the U.S. I also want the refugees to feel ownership of their newly formed groups and continue to sustain them. I hope the skills and knowledge that are gained will be used to support future refugee groups arriving in Worcester. Finally, I want them to use their new found voices and power to build the lives that they dreamed about.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

This is a very big question with many layers. Within the refugee communities with whom I have been working, lack of access is a pressing issue. Inequalities in health care access greatly impact the well-being of these new communities.

Health literacy is one of the social determinants of health and well-being. Low health literacy is one barrier to access. Health literacy levels are especially low in many refugee communities. Many come from country without formalized health care systems, and without prior experience, navigating the complexities of the U.S. healthcare system is a huge challenge—one that is further compounded by a lack of English skills and/or cultural understanding of U.S. health care practices.

One way to address this issue is to develop educational programs that increase health literacy in immigrant communities. These programs must be linguistically and culturally appropriate for the target communities. Also, health literacy assessment should be conducted by health practitioners—and health care providers should then tailor the care they provided based on the assessment findings.  Hospitals and health care organizations must develop protocols, materials, and services which address the needs of patients with low levels of health literacy.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

I was most surprised by the high level of distrust of government and authority that exists within some refugee communities. One group was afraid to meet together for fear of being noticed by the government. This has posed a special challenge, since some of the projects the groups want to work on require meeting and negotiating with local government officials. Of course, these fears are well-founded when we consider that many of these refugees came from countries where authoritarian regimes placed strict limits on personal freedoms.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

My Schweitzer Fellowship has given me a tremendous opportunity to focus on work that I am passionate about. I’ve been nurtured and inspired by the community of Fellows who are committed to improving the lives of others. Being a Schweitzer Fellow has allowed me to reaffirm my beliefs, values, and commitment to justice and equality while providing me the chance to act out the changes I want to see in the world.

Toy Lim is a Schweitzer Fellow in Worcester, MA. Click here to read more about The Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Lim it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Lim’s efforts to improve the health and lives of immigrants and refugees, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.