Justice is Healing: Community Health Organizing in the Southeast Asian Community in the Bronx

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Event Organizers: Chhaya Chhoum , Joyce Wong, and Ousara Phok

On Friday, September 19, 2008 we had the opportunity to attend a community health forum organized by the Southeast Asian community of the North West Bronx. The forum, entitled “Justice is Healing,” was the work of a local community group, the Youth Leadership Project (YLP).

The setting for the forum was the beautiful new Bronx Library Center off of Fordham Road. In a large meeting space below the entrance, mothers tended to noisy toddlers and infants in strollers. Hot Cambodian and Vietnamese food was served on long tables alongside literature about various immigration related campaigns. Inside the Library’s auditorium some 200 participants listened to a full evening’s worth of speakers. Most were southeast Asian immigrants from community. However, it was heartening to see faces of all complexions amongst the public. The presentations were translated into three languages: Khmer, Vietnamese, and English. Despite this often laborious process interest remained high throughout the 3 hour program and people left energized.

YLP, established in 1996 by the CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities (aka the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence), has been working for several years to address the needs of several thousand primarily Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. (See our posting on Agent Orange.) These refugees were settled in our part of the Bronx is the early 1980’s. Many had suffered tremendous losses in their home countries. In some cases, their entire family had been killed. They had spent years living in refugee camps. Now they found themselves in some of the most troubled areas of the Bronx, not speaking English (or Spanish!) and with limited social services. Many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a problem aggravated by neighborhood violence. In one, very public case, a young Cambodian, Kim Hong Tim, was murdered as he drove his taxi in the spring of 2000.

Local organizations reached out to help. The Montefiore Family Health Center – a federally funded Community Health Center – established an Indochinese Mental Health Program in collaboration with the Montefiore Department of Psychiatry. This Program became a lifeline for many patients. Providing much more than simply mental health, workers in the program coordinated care with the clinic’s physicians and hooked people into community resources. CAAV organized the YLP to address the damage caused by “welfare reform” in the mid-90’s. As part of this effort, YLP produced a film – Eating Welfare – which chronicles the situation in the community at the time.

Over the past two years, YLP has partnered with the NYU Center for the Study of Asian American Health to examine the health problems of local South East Asians. In 2007 YLP interviewed and surveyed 150 residents, asking them about their major health problems and their concerns regarding health care. The results of this survey can be found at the following sites:

Cambodian Community: http://www.med.nyu.edu/csaah/research/ethnic.html#cambodian_chnra
Vietnamese Community: http://www.med.nyu.edu/csaah/research/ethnic.html#vietnamese_chnra

As a result of this survey YLP made five key recommendations:

1. Improved language access and translation services.

2. Availability of complementary and alternative treatments.

3. Outreach and education programs linking trauma and diabetes.

4. Workforce development (i.e. hiring and training of southeast Asian community members).

5. Integration of health and social services

Many community members spoke at the event, detailing their experiences with healthcare in the Bronx. A common theme was difficulties with translation. In some cases children were used as translators. This is highly problematic because children should not be involved in certain health care discussions. Children may not know their parent’s language sufficiently well to function as medical translators. Using phone translators is also problematic because they are often not skilled in specific medical terms nor do they know the context of a conversation.

In the long term, the YLP would like to see a comprehensive war survivors clinic, a resource that would be of value to many communities in the Bronx. The demands of the YLP are very much in agreement with the vision of community health. The responsibility of health professionals extends beyond simply treating disease when it shows up in the office. The job of a community health center is to reach out to the surrounding community and particularly to the most vulnerable parts of the community. It addresses not just medical problems but also the multiple social and health issues of its community.

For additional coverage of this event, see the 10/2/2008 article in the Norwood News by Rebecca Chao. You can also listen to a radio report entitled Welcome to the Health Forum made by Radio Rootz.

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2 Responses to “Justice is Healing: Community Health Organizing in the Southeast Asian Community in the Bronx”


  1. […] It only makes us angry.”  The use of children as interpreter has also been an issue with our southeast Asian patients.  For a list of translation resources, see the end of this post.  Ms. Aguil0 also spoke about the […]

  2. […] a follow-up to our October 15, 2008 posting on the South-East Asian Community in the Bronx: Justice is Healing, we wanted to share this invitation from the Youth Leadership Project.  They will be holding a […]

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