I am a refugee from Somalia, who swore to devote his personal and professional life to bettering the health and lives of Americans in 2004. I am someone who invested his entire education in health sciences and public health on two continents. I studied tropical medicine and researched solutions for curative tools for devastating pathogens in prestigious research laboratories. I never stopped following my dreams, and I changed my career path to population health, recognizing the unmet needs faced by many of my fellow Somalis in America and elsewhere.
Somalis in the United States confront many challenges accessing healthcare as well as in understanding and receiving health services and information. Health issues can be daunting, and few organizations are well equipped to handle the customs and language of my community. As a result, my people sometimes suffer. I decided to advocate and fill the gap in refugee health services, and I wanted to do something to ensure my community had access to information that would protect them. When a major storm headed for King County in 2012, I knew from experience that many immigrant communities may not be prepared. People had died from carbon monoxide poisoning in past storms when they tried to heat their homes with grills and other unsafe sources. This time, I worked with partners at King County and a local mosque to send a phone message to Somalis with information about storm preparedness and hotline number. We also set up a warming shelter and rented vehicles to bring meals to families. This time, nobody died.
Fortunately, good work sometimes gets rewarded, and mine was noticed by the White House! In September, I was was recognized as a Champion of Change at the White House. On September 24th, the same day I was honored as a Champion of Change, there was something else taking place in the capitol: Ted Cruz made his historic stand on the chamber floor, speaking for 21 hours about the need to defund the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in exchange for avoiding a government shutdown. He made his point, but as an immigrant who advocates for healthy equity and social justice for all Americans, I could not sit and let it go unaddressed. I got a pen and paper and expressed my opinion on the new law. It read “ YES ACA.”
It might not seem like much, but it was a monumental statement for me, the 2013 Champion of Change who was recognized for protecting his community from a potentially deadly winter storm.
I stood up with my sign in front of the Capitol Hill where Senator Ted Cruz made his speech. I choose to say ‘YES!’ to the Affordable Care Act, I choose to represent Americans who could not be there, and I spoke for millions of Americans who are voiceless and uninsured. I did it because health insurance companies should not be allowed to take advantage of us anymore and turn away million Americans with pre-existing conditions. I support the marketplace for all insurance providers to compete on behalf of consumers, hopefully leveling out uncontrollable premiums. I spoke for those tens of millions who are underinsured, the many who had coverage but were afraid of losing it, and the 50 million Americans who had no insurance at all. We are not asking government handouts here, but a fair system.
I believe all American families deserve to be healthy. That’s a big statement, I know. Let me explain how we think about it at WithinReach. To us, a healthy family knows they can see a doctor before there’s a crisis, not only when they are in crisis. They don’t have to decide between paying for groceries or paying the bills. They have a community that can support them and as a result they, in turn, can support others. Being healthy in these ways positions families for success in all ways. Unfortunately, there are thousands of families across Washington state who want to be healthy and could be healthy, but currently are not. Health must be seen as a central element of a thriving society and not something that causes constant anxiety and fear for our families. Let’s work together to make health a reality for all families.