Campus News

Refugee health summit speakers share unique perspectives

Jessica Lazarin, director of the city of Buffalo’s Office of New Americans, shares her perspectives during the summit.

Jessica Lazarin, director of the city of Buffalo’s Office of New Americans, shares her perspectives during the summit. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published April 25, 2017 This content is archived.

“In our history, we’ve had a lot of anti-immigrant moments. I strongly believe that some of what we’re seeing today is a legacy of the 1996 overhaul of our immigration laws. ”
Sophie Feal, director, immigration program
Volunteer Lawyers Project

Many people think America’s attitudes toward immigration changed in January when President Donald Trump took office vowing to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and crack down on people entering the country.

The reality, though, is that America has displayed bouts of anti-immigrant behavior throughout its history, said Sophie Feal, an immigration lawyer in Buffalo who was among the featured speakers at the fourth annual Western New York Refugee Health Summit hosted Friday at UB’s Arthur O. Eve Educational Opportunity Center.

This year’s summit was attended by 150 people, making it the largest one yet. It’s also the biggest community-focused event with which UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions is involved. The event is co-sponsored by the school’s Office of Global Health Initiatives and UB’s Community for Global Health Equity.

Pavani Ram at the lectern, microphone in hand.

Pavani Ram, co-director of UB's Community for Global Health Equity, welcomes participants to the summit. Photo: Douglas Levere

“It’s such a pleasure to see this event bring university faculty, staff and students together with our community partners who are so engaged in providing services for the refugee,” said CGHE co-director Pavani Ram.

This year’s theme was improving health literacy for Buffalo’s refugee population. The event featured a series of speakers during the morning portion, followed by a variety of breakout sessions and an afternoon workshop on improving Buffalo’s health literacy. Also new this year, the health summit had its own facilitator: Ismet Mamnoon of Knowinnovation.

Feal works with the Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project, where the UB School of Law alumna directs the immigration program. Her presentation focused on immigration law in the U.S., particularly since the 1996 overhaul signed by then-President Clinton.

“In our history, we’ve had a lot of anti-immigrant moments,” Feal said, adding, “I strongly believe that some of what we’re seeing today is a legacy of the 1996 overhaul of our immigration laws.”

Those laws, Feal said, “set into motion very inhumane and draconian provisions that are being instituted little by little, culminating in what we are seeing today.”

The general public has become more aware of immigration issues, Feal said. “At the same time, I fear that if everyone believes it’s just this administration, the minute a new administration comes in, everybody’s going to forget the legacy of anti-immigrant sentiment in this country. It comes in waves and it goes, but it seems to be omnipresent in many instances.”

Another issue, Feal said, is the backlog of immigration cases many courts are now faced with. “How do we keep up with enforcement if we don’t have the corps of judges to adjudicate all of the claims?” she asked.

Participants at the summit listen intently.

The summit drew participants interested in improving health literacy for Buffalo's refugee population. Photo: Douglas Levere

Case study from Canada

Another speaker at the summit discussed how a group of Canadian doctors rallied against sweeping changes to a federal government program that had provided health care for refugees in that country for decades.

“Not only was this new policy quite inhumane, it was also problematic in terms of implementation,” Meb Rashid said via Skype.

During his presentation, Rashid — who is medical director of the Crossroads Clinic and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto — described how he and many of his colleagues led the fight against the more restrictive policy.

Tables were set up outside of the conference hall to share information pertaining to various refugee services.

Information tables filled the lobby of UB's Arthur O. Eve Educational Opportunity Center. Photo: Douglas Levere

The regulations were enacted in 2012 and severely limited health care coverage for refugees in Canada, which caused an uproar among physicians and refugee organizations. A series of protests — including one in which 90 doctors showed up at the office of a member of Parliament in Toronto to demand a face-to-face meeting — helped sway public opinion. In 2016, the health care program for refugees was restored to what it was.

People frequently ask why the cuts drew such a strong response from the Canadian health care community. “I’d like to think that in Canada we take exception to people targeting the most vulnerable,” Rashid said. But, he added, “I think more than anything, for many of us, using health care as a means to leverage immigration policy felt particularly odious.”

Other speakers at this year’s summit were:

  • Kevin Pottie, founding director of the Immigrant Health Clinic of Ottawa and a researcher in the Centre for Global Health at the University of Ottawa.
  • Sharmila Shetty, a medical epidemiologist in the Emergency Response and Recovery Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Deborah Lee, an epidemiologist in the Immigrant, Refugee and Migrant Health (IRMH) Branch of the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine (DGMQ).
  • Jessica Lazarin, director of the city of Buffalo’s Office of New Americans.


Thank you to everyone involved in bringing this summit to fruition! I'm so glad this event exists to disseminate this important information.


And, I'm so proud that UB is on the forefront of bringing these issues to light in our local community.


Karen Peissinger