LYNN — A local doctor is taking charge to ensure refugees seeking solace in the city are comfortably integrated into the community.
Dr. Elena Cherepanov is the lead clinician for The Refugee Integrated Behavioral Health Care Program at the Lynn Community Health Center (LCHC). She was raised in Moscow and lived there until she moved to the United States in 2000.
“By helping refugees we are not only helping them but we are also helping the community because integrating them into it creates unbelievable synergy,” said Cherepanov. “They’re also survivors who’ve been through a lot so their presence is greatly beneficial for the community.”
The integrated program, which Cherepanov became the lead on four years ago, works with medical and primary care professionals to provide comprehensive care for any refugee who walks in seeking assistance. The refugees get screened for both mental and physical health while Cherepanov and her associates also work with the survivors to gain employment which gives them the ability to achieve their goals.
“The goal is to improve health and wellness because that is a major barrier to integration into the community and different studies have demonstrated the impact of a refugee settlement in the community and how much it improves their social, cultural and economic lives,” she said. “Several years ago they included behavioral health into the screenings which allows us to screen all the refugees who come here for adjustment issues, stress or trauma and also to engage them with behavioral health services as quickly as possible.”
As a psychologist, Cherepanov has taken part in refugee work since the Armenian earthquake and the Chernobyl disaster more than 30 years ago. She says she is grateful for her position at LCHC because it gives her a nice opportunity to combine her interests of international work and the need to feel closer to her home thousands of miles away.
“Recently, I was a first responder for Hurricane Harvey in Texas where people in and around Houston were flooded,” she said. “There was a mega-shelter of 5,000 people in Dallas filled with all kinds of groups from the surrounding communities and among all of them, the former refugees that were there, did the best because they were more resilient and ended up helping the other families around them.”
According to the LCHC lead clinician, there are challenges to working with refugees in settling them into their new surroundings. Cherepanov said hearing their heartbreaking stories as well as working with some who speak a language she does not understand can become difficult, but that is what the many resources offered by the Lynn Community Health Center are for.
“Some of the refugees that come here speak in a dialect that we don’t even have interpreters for, so for instances like that we do utilize community resources but also LCHC has a system set up that works both for medical providers and behavioral providers which is essentially a speaker phone that can connect you to someone that speaks whatever language you need,” she said.
The integrative program, as part of the LCHC, works with a variety of community organizations to ensure that all of the refugee patients are getting the treatment and assistance they are in need of. Companies like the New American Center, Case Management and Pathways help refugees get healthy, find jobs and learn English, which can make it easier for them and their families to thrive in a new environment.
“There was a person who arrived here recently whose family remains in refugee camps or has been murdered, so they don’t feel safe which forces them not to get any sleep and have nightmares,” said the lead clinician. “This behavioral program helps the refugee become calm and helps the community to benefit from these new cultural energies and to help them prevail and achieve success here,” she said.
Even with the success of the integrative program, the number of refugees has drastically decreased over the last couple of years due to current politics in the U.S., according to the doctor. Within the last year, LCHC has helped integrate around 200 refugees, with the majority of them living in Lynn, compared to almost 500 refugees a few years ago.
“In the current climate of the anti-immigrant sentiments it becomes a bigger issue so then it means that we work not only with the refugees to help them get integrated but we also target the community in terms of making them more open to different cultures,” said Cherepanov.