Refugee Orientation: Health and Safety

July 27, 2016

Dental student Karaneh Jahan talks about basic dental care
Dental student Karaneh Jahan talks about basic dental care

Newly arriving refugees learned the basics of personal safety and hygiene in the third of a series of classes intended to introduce them to all aspects of life in the United States.

“Since they are new to this country, they might be unfamiliar with a lot of things,” said Katie Occhipinti, a nursing student at the Oregon Health and Science University. “It kind of serves as an introduction to health care professionals… to see people in a safe comfortable contact first might help them transition when they are seeing these people in their community.”

Volunteer nursing and dental students from OHSU, Multnomah County Health Department staff and officers from the Portland Police Bureau set up stations around the large conference room at Catholic Charities, where they met with the new residents one-on-one.


Personal Hygiene

Allison Mohler, a nursing student at OHSU, sat down with Tun Myin, a refugee from Myanmar. She showed a paper with photos of a person blowing his nose -- one photo showed someone blowing her nose with her hand, another showed someone blowing her nose with a tissue. She asked him which was the best way. Myin pointed to an image of someone blowing her nose with a tissue.

Mohler talked about other basics of hygiene in the U.S., tools such as a hair brush, nail clippers, shampoo, and deodorant.

And she discussed why it’s healthy to throw trash in a trash can. Also, she let the class know, people can get a fine in the United States if they spit or urinate in public.

Dental student Karaneh Jahan walked participants through the basics of dental hygiene: two minutes, twice a day, with a soft-bristled brush. He encouraged people to use floss too. It doesn’t only get food from between our teeth, but it keeps the mouth healthy too.

Nursing student Katie Occhipinti stood in beside a sink to talk to participants about why it’s important to wash one’s hands before meals. She emphasized the importance of washing up after using the bathroom, petting an animal or covering your face when you sneeze or cough.  

Occhipinti and Multnomah County community health specialist Eugene Sadiki showed people how to wash their hands - soaping up their fists for 20 seconds, up to their wrists, and making sure to wash the palms and the backs of their hands as well.

“I feel really good being here because in health department, we have the vision of healthy people and healthy communities,” Sadiki, who worked as a nurse in Congo before coming to Oregon. “If people are getting good information about health, it will help them to change their behavior then they will be healthy.”

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A Nepali refugee man, Kitu Khanal with his daughter

Health Services

When refugees arrive in Oregon, each will be scheduled for a medical screening at the Mid County Health Center, where they’ll be assigned a primary care doctor.

Scheduling an appointment with the doctor can be frustrating. Nursing student Keely Bertak explained that the phone may ring and a patient might wait for a long time before someone answers. But don’t hang up, she said. When someone answers the phone, tell them the language you prefer.

Before calling, Bertake recommended people prepare the information the scheduler will request, which may include date of birth, medical record number, insurance, and address.

Primary care doctors are just one kind of health provider. Callie Harling displayed a board with different types of services - from primary care doctors and dentists, to hospitals, urgent care and emergency responders.

It’s not always clear where people should go when they need help. And refugee residents are more likely to avoid seeking care until pain is acute, and more likely to visit an emergency room for issues that can be addressed by urgent care or primary care doctors.  

So Harling gave a few examples.

She held up photos of people suffering from asthma, fever, headache.

If someone has a headache or fever, they don’t want to call 911. She said people should call their doctors to make an appointment. Sometimes the doctor is busy for weeks in advance, so people can seek help from urgent care, or go to the emergency room if the problem is serious.

Harling said if someone has a life-threatening illness, such as a heart attack, the best thing to do is to call 911, so an ambulance can come immediately and take the person to the hospital.

Nursing student Callie Harling talks to refugees about when to seek emergency services
Nursing student Callie Harling talks to refugees about when to seek emergency services


People can call 911 if there is a medical emergency, and an ambulance will come. People can also call 911 if there is a fire or other risk.

Portland Police officer Matt Tobey told the class that Portland has a low crime rate for a city its size, but the new residents should still take care. Avoid walking alone after dark in areas without street lights, he said.

“All these families are new members to our community and I want to make sure they are comfortable with Portland,” Tobey said. “I want them to understand about fire safety and personal safety, and most importantly I want them to understand some of the culture differences. I want them to be comfortable call us because we are here to help.”

Tobey talked about household heating systems, a common confusion for families unfamiliar with the devices. He said people should use the heaters, and not the stove, to generate heat during winter months. He also cautioned people not to place candles near an open window or curtains. People who see smoke in their homes should leave and call 911.

Nursing student Nicki Newman played the role of 911 operator as participants practiced making an emergency call. They repeated the English phrase, “No English” then repeated the language in which they needed an interpreter. Each gave his or her home address and phone number, and practiced staying on the phone with the operator until the call was complete.

Newman recommended writing the address and phone number on a piece of paper and put it on the home refrigerator.

Another nursing student, Blythe Toninato, manned a booth on disaster preparedness. Oregon doesn’t have hurricanes, and Portland is safe from any tsunami, but Oregon could have an earthquake some day. And it’s good to have emergency supplies in case of minor emergencies such as severe weather or an electric outage.

She laid out a box containing water, canned food and a first aid kit.  Residents can also find out more about preparing an emergency plan and an emergency kit with these earthquake primers in 11 languages.