Stories and photos by TOM BETAR
Take a peek in the Ventanilla de Salud HERE
Peering into the Ventanilla de Salud, or health window, of many Utah immigrants may yield cloudy results, so organizations like Communities United (Comunidades Unidas), are working to remove that opacity and open the windows and doors to allow these individuals to become more healthy, educated and productive members of society.
Integration can be a foreign concept to some, but for the members of CU integration is the critical concept that will allow immigrants to reach their full potential as American citizens and community members.
Rose Maizner, interim executive director of CU, said integration occurs in many ways. But, CU’s two main initiatives are community well-being and the recently updated community engagement.
The community well-being initiative covers a wide range of health-related issues and includes services such as diagnostic testing, prenatal classes, referrals and transportation. Advice is also given to residents so that they can affordably and effectively visit a doctor.
The community engagement initiative focuses on civic and social integration, with an underlying philosophy that immigrants need to understand the systems that exist so they can advocate for themselves and address problems they face. This initiative also promotes the idea that immigrants need to be immersed and involved in their community to make changes and to make it stronger.
Maizner said while most immigrants are not a drain on the healthcare or other systems, it does become a possibility if they do not understand some of the basic processes.
“The goal is to help our immigrants in the community become more integrated into the fabric of our society,” Maizner said. “People are not going to be able to be fully integrated unless they have a basic understanding of how our systems operate. We are providing a bridge between a more marginalized community and the larger community.”
David Monge is the program coordinator for Ventanilla de Salud, which roughly translates to health booth or health window. This program takes place at the Mexican Consulate, 1380 S. Main St., and is part of the health initiative of CU.
Although the name may suggest otherwise, it is essentially a small countertop reception area with employees who provide free services such as basic testing for diabetes and blood pressure, as well as a body mass index calculation that can reveal weight issues.
Rows of chairs fill a large room somewhat resembling the waiting area for the typical DMV. While immigrants wait to receive services from the consulate such as visas, passports or identification, they can also take advantage of Ventanilla de Salud. Health-related posters and images are splashed on the walls, and pamphlets containing health information are prominently displayed along the polished countertop.
Monge said another important aspect of his program is Seguro Popular, which allows the family of an immigrant resident to obtain health coverage in Mexico while the immigrant remains here or tries to travel home.
“Pretty much anyone who walks in can have these services,” Monge said. “One of the key things is that every day in front of this audience here we provide health information. We provide information about a specific topic and about something that matters like heart health, cholesterol, influenza, prenatal care, etc. We invite people to come talk to us.”
Maizner said Communities United was started as a neighborhood initiative in 1999 in Midvale, Utah. It was originally created in response to the high infant mortality rate among immigrants, and also to address the overall understanding of the healthcare and democratic systems among immigrants. The organization expanded rapidly and the main facility is now located in Salt Lake City at 1341 S. State St.
“People had no idea what services were available or how to access them,” Maizner said. “We started as a very small organization and through the passion and commitment of our staff, our administrative team and our board we’ve really grown quite significantly in the past few years. We’re still learning a lot but I think on the whole we’ve been really successful and are poised for continued success.”
Masha Boguslavsky, CU’s multicultural health network and breast cancer program coordinator, came to the United States in 1997 from Uzbekistan, so Russian is her first language. She has been with the organization for almost three years. Previously, she majored in international studies as an undergraduate at the University of Utah. She also worked for the International Rescue Committee and said she has always had an interest in working with immigrants, refugees and nonprofit organizations.
“I get to meet people from all over the world, educate them about health issues, (and) help them get a variety of free services,” she said in an email interview. “So it’s definitely an interesting and rewarding experience to say the least.”
As part of CU’s health initiative, free events are organized where immigrants can get HIV or glucose testing, as well as vision exams and healthcare information from various organizations such as the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Boguslavsky said staff members and volunteers drive immigrants to their medical appointments and interpret services for them.
“I think our programs are of great benefit to our diverse community,” she said. “And we always strive to improve ourselves and to be able to serve our clients more effectively.”
Boguslavsky said physical services are only part of the way in which CU helps immigrants in the community.
“Our goal is to make sure everyone receives information, education and assistance to address the most pressing health needs,” she said. “This includes having knowledge of and access to all available federal and local health services and resources, as well as having accurate information on receiving affordable medical services and getting good results.”
She said mammograms, flu shots, general check-ups, prescriptions and referrals for specialized care are just some of the free services available to immigrants. Classes focusing on educating people about breast cancer and prenatal care are also offered. Boguslavsky said proper health care is important to almost all aspects of an individual’s life, so CU’s free and low cost programs are invaluable to residents.
Boguslavsky said that sickness prevents many people from working, and therefore hours and money are lost for sick residents.
“Health is very important among these particular residents. It affects your family and your life in general so it’s very important to stay healthy. If you don’t have health you can’t provide for yourself,” she said.
All Salt Lake City immigrants can benefit from the services provided by CU, but individuals on the west side are of particular interest to organizations like CU because of the complexity of the area in which they live.
CU’s interim Executive Director Maizner said her organization recently partnered with the EPA to conduct a revealing assessment of both immigrant and non-immigrant populations on the west side. The holistic assessment gauged the general concerns and priorities of these residents.
“The sense that we got from a lot of residents we spoke to is that they feel kind of neglected,” Maizner said. “A lot of people felt like the people who were supposed to be representing them weren’t really representative of the average resident.”
Maizner said working with immigrants on the west side is a challenge in large part because of the area’s unique history and diversity.
“One thing that we found is that the west side is a very fractured community,” she said. “Because of the different patterns of migration there is a big divide between the Caucasian population and some of the newer immigrant populations and even between the immigrant groups themselves.”
This diversity makes it harder to assess the needs and wants of the west side as a whole, and many residents are not motivated to join together collectively.
“It’s hard for people to pull together, to band together, and to address issues that affect all of them because it’s such a fractured and divided space,” she said. “We love to see more collaboration between the long-time residents and the newer immigrants but it’s very far from happening.”
Maizner said the programs and services that her organization provides are received well by the community and that some immigrants may only come to them for health needs.
“By and large people are really receptive to our services,” she said. “I think there is a general sense that there are not a lot of services and programs available to them or that they qualify for, and so people very much feel like we are a resource for them and maybe one of the only resources that they are really comfortable going to.”
Maizner said CU’s staff, many of whom predominantly speak Spanish and are from immigrant families themselves, help clients feel at ease. She said many of her clients learn about CU through word of mouth.
“They understand where a lot of our clients are coming from and some of their concerns and the issues that we need to be sensitive towards,” she said. “We definitely have a good reputation within the community and that’s kind of how we are able to continue to serve our clients.”