NOV. 16, 2020 5:11 PM PT

As winter approaches and cases of the coronavirus again begin to surge, we need to learn from the challenges our communities experienced during earlier waves of the pandemic and take steps to prevent or reduce additional hardships in the months to come.

Even before the arrival of the pandemic, immigrants and refugees in San Diego County struggled to access employment, affordable housing, educational opportunities and health care. The pandemic has made these challenges worse while cutting off access to critical social supports and connections when they’re needed most.

The San Diego Refugee Communities Coalition recently surveyed the clients of our member organizations to get a better sense of what they have faced since the arrival of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. We heard from 300 households representing more than 1,400 residents who are refugees and new immigrants of East African, Middle Eastern, Central and South Asian, and Haitian descent.

We learned that 70 percent of these families are concerned about having enough food, and 60 percent are unable to pay all of their rent. More than half of the families said at least one family member has lost a job or income or has had to close a business. Many refugees work in the service industry as rideshare or taxi drivers or in hotels and retail, sectors that have contracted during the pandemic, so it’s not surprising that economic concerns are paramount.


We also heard that students are struggling. Overall, 85 percent of families with school-age children say that — despite schools’ best efforts — their children are not getting the support they need to participate in distance learning. These students face barriers that many of their peers don’t encounter — like not having a place to work or reliable access to a computer or the internet. Others are dealing with language challenges or don’t have anyone at home who is able to support their learning.

Prior negative experiences, language barriers and difficulty navigating confusing health-care systems have deterred or delayed families from accessing treatment they need. More than 30 percent of families told us that they have canceled or missed a medical appointment because of the pandemic. Fears of contracting COVID-19 mean that many families are avoiding in-person visits, yet very few families are comfortable with tele-health alternatives. There is a general mistrust of technology, particularly when it comes to keeping health information private. There are also practical barriers to having a private health consultation via Zoom from a small apartment shared with school age-children and other family members.

These challenges take a toll: 40 percent of respondents to our survey said they are extremely concerned about the emotional health impacts of the pandemic. In a focus group conducted with community leaders, we heard reports of increased domestic violence, as well as alcohol use and drug use in some communities, especially among younger males. Meanwhile, 80 percent of families are concerned about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their ability to access places of worship, an important source of connection and support.

Amid these daunting challenges are sources of hope. San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency is funding eight ethnic community-based organizations to provide bilingual outreach and education to help ensure that refugee communities have access to accurate and current information about coronavirus testing sites and resources. Emergency response funds and rent-relief programs have helped keep a number of families afloat and in their homes. Most families report that they are happy with the communication from their schools, and many have received supports such tutoring, school supplies, computers and WiFi assistance. And the vast majority of those who responded to our survey said they had at least one person they could count on for support in dealing with the stress resulting from the pandemic.

But much need remains. Working through community organizations with the knowledge and trust of those they serve, we see many more opportunities to promote hope and resilience among immigrant and refugee families in San Diego County, from supporting digital literacy for families of school-aged children to ensuring that voices of refugee communities are represented in regional economic development and planning conversations.

As we face another wave of COVID-19 cases, we need to act now to ensure that all communities in San Diego County have the education, opportunities and access they need to weather this difficult season, recover and thrive.

Zubaidi and Mohamed work in the Refugee Health Unit of the UC San Diego Center for Community Health. Zubaidi lives in Mission Valley. Mohamed lives in La Mesa.


Read article on Union Tribune here: