If you’re looking for David Wantate in the office, you probably won’t find him. He’s likely to be at the hospital with a refugee or transporting another to a doctor’s appointment. As the Special Needs Care Coordinator, David is on the front line of service, finding healthcare assistance for the most vulnerable.
David came to the US by himself, leaving his family behind in May 2013. He was later granted asylum status through the US government. In David’s home country, Uganda, he worked for several humanitarian agencies in the public health sector on issues ranging from HIV/AIDS prevention & care, tuberculosis prevention & care, reproductive health and gender based violence. David even worked closely with IRC Uganda while serving the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. His career has led him to work in Mongolia for two years and in Kenya on various short-term projects.
David has high hopes for the future despite the current political climate. “The IRC started in 1933 and it has been growing through various challenges. I’m very optimistic that even that within this storm, the IRC will survive and adapt to the situation. I’m looking for ways of insuring [IRC]’s mission, vision, and objectives are realized and continued with its good work. Having seen the IRC doing work back home, I’m really excited working with the IRC in the United States. I don’t think I could have been anywhere else; I’m in the right place.”
What does your job entail?
For special needs care, our key role is to promote health and wellness of clients. We ensure clients access healthcare services that address their physical and psychological needs. One of our goals is to ensure refugees are successfully integrated within United States communities. We deal [mostly] with mental health: trauma, depression. We work with people who have gone through torture, persecution, harassment and abuse. We also have cases with lifelong illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and also the elderly.
We also provide healthcare access assistance. The system here is different from where [they] came from. This system is advanced, it’s complicated, and very bureaucratic. So it’s very difficult to navigate, so when people come in they may not be able to manage it on their own. They may not have heard about a primary care provider (PCP), managed care organization (MCO) or health insurance. So we help these clients learn to navigate through the systems.
We also provide direct services like logistical support. We assist to transport people from their homes to a service points and appointments. Because when you're new in a country like the US it is very difficult. You need time to learn to use public transportation or even call a cab. We also need to remember that many of the refugees may not speak English. We try to help them navigate.
Another key components of our work is advocacy. When you are new in US and to the system, you may not know your rights. And often times, this may lead to being taken advantage of. I’ll give you an example, the right for interpretation services. Some clients [have] been denied services because of language barrier, but this is an offense. They have a right to demand and be provided with interpretation services. Especially all health facilities that get federal assistance are supposed to provide language interpretation services to their clients, but it has not always been the case. So we educate our clients on their rights and also intervene on their behalf where necessary to a point where they can stand on their own
We also assist to link our clients to other service providers and specialty services.
What is the difference between special needs care for US citizens born in America and refugees/asylees?
People in the United States are lucky. They are in the best economy in the world, they have advanced services, the government is committed to helping its people and the people know their rights and demand them
When refugees come to the United States, they don’t come from their mother countries. They come in from camps and the situation in the camps is not the best. They have very poor housing, very limited services such as schools, and very limited access to communication. They live in encampment situations. They ran away from torture, persecution, abuse or conflict at home- and ended up in encampment situation where you almost have nothing.
Probably one had a good job in their country and property. Then you ran away and you end up being encamped, put in an environment where there is no proper housing, no medical services, no proper nutrition, etc. So it’s like a double tragedy. I don’t think US people have experienced this tragedy.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Sometimes the system is very bureaucratic and this may be frustrating. It is a very complicated system, is a process, with little or no short cuts even in situations that may require expediting. You have to do intensive lobbying and networking; but over time, when you have good networks, you learn who else can help and it becomes easier.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
One of the things that inspires me is putting a smile on the face of somebody who has gone through trauma, who has gone through torture, through abuse, and they probably think that there is “no life anymore”. So restoring hope to those people, seeing that they are smiling and happy, have gained self-esteem, can start a new life again is very important and it really puts a smile on my face too.
Also, when you start seeing clients doing things themselves, being incorporated into the community and then doing things that you did for them. That really makes you feel happy; you know you’re contributing to someone’s self-sufficiency in the system.
Is there anything you are particularly excited for in the future?
I’m also excited that the IRC has very visionary, committed and compassionate management. When you see what the President/CEO of the IRC is doing at the international scene advocating for refugees, it’s really amazing. At the local level what the Executive Director and other team members are doing to lobby leaders and to mobilize resources, I have no doubt that I am as the IRC we will strive and survive.
At the national level, I remain optimistic the United States will still stand out as a champion for the oppressed and the persecuted, that the US will not lose its values and not forget its history of being a nation of immigrants.
Interview by Kristen Lusk/IRC
Photo by Ana Lewett/IRC