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Health For All: Refugees in Chicago

By Megan Tempest in Food on Jan 12, 2010 4:45PM


Sarah Eichberger, “Refugee Nutritionist” with Heartland Alliance, graciously shares with us her insight into Chicago's refugee community.

Chicagoist: Sarah, what can you tell us about the presence of our local refugee community?

Sarah Eichberger: Since 1975, over 133,000 international refugees have been resettled in the Chicago area. Last year alone, this city took in 2, 412 refugees, and 2,800 refugees are expected this year. Most refugees in Chicago today are from Bhutan, Burma, and Iraq. Each of these groups enters the United States with a distinct, rich and complex set of cultural values and traditions. The United Nations defines a refugee as a person with “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” It is important to note that the terms “refugee” and “immigrant” are not synonymous.

C: Tell us a little about your position as “Refugee Nutritionist”.

SE: I have held the position of “Refugee Nutritionist” within the Refugee Health Programs at Heartland Alliance for Human Need and Human Rights since 2006. My position is funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and administered by the Illinois Department of Public Health. To date, I am unaware of any other registered dietitian in the United States who works exclusively with resettled refugees. The position is organized to work collaboratively with five resettlement agencies and two refugee health screening clinics to provide nutrition screening, consultations, home visits, and group educated to newly-arrived refugees. Another objective is the development of culturally appropriate nutrition education, and that would be impossible without the guidance of the program's four ethnic health promoters, all former refugees and representing Burma, Bhutan and Ethiopia.

C: Describe the nature of your work and what you seek to accomplish within the refugee community.

SE: The strategic goals of my work are largely driven by what I learn from working within the refugee community and with resettlement case managers, physicians, ESL instructors and refugees themselves. This past fiscal year, I worked to create awareness about the growing prevalence of food insecurity among refugees and question whether the food they are given at the local pantry truly meets their needs. The story that I recall the most occurred during a home visit to a Bhutanese women who learned of her recent diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. Uma, our Bhutanese Health Promoter/Interpreter and I entered her kitchen and noticed cans of food lining the gap between her cupboards and the floor. When I asked the women, through Uma, the reason why she kept the food along the floor border, she replied, “for decoration”. The food she had received was unrecognizable to her, and therefore not eaten. In January, with the help of an intern from the Harvard School of Public Health, also a former refugee, we drafted “A Refugee's Right to Adequate Food”, an advocacy document that highlights the special food needs of resettled refugees. Like healthcare, healthy food is also a human right.

C: Looking ahead, what do you hope to achieve?

SE: This fiscal year, I will focus my energy on creating a type 2 diabetes initiative with a focus on the Iraqi refugees, which are the most unique group with which I have worked. Unlike the Somali, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Liberian, Burmese, and Bhutanese, the Iraqis who have found their way to Chicago have not lived in refugee camps, and many once held jobs as engineers, physicians, and lawyers in Iraq before the war in 2003.

C: For those of us who would like to learn more about the refugee population, what resources would you recommend?


Stealing Buddha's Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyen
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down; A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, by Anne Fadiman
What is the What, by Dave Eggers

United States Commission on Refugee and Immigrants
United Nations High Commission on Refugee

Chicago Tribune:
“Nepal exit becomes city school entry: Rejected by Bhutan and Nepal, refugees come to Chicago with help from Heartland Alliance” by Pam DeFiglio

Rain in a Dry Land” by Anne Makepeace