Published June 26, 2014
Kim Griswold MD, MPH, has been named the primary clinician and medical director of the Western New York Center for Survivors of Refugee Trauma and Torture, an interdisciplinary program addressing the complex needs of an estimated 15,000 survivors.
Providers need to learn how to be culturally competent and work well with interpreters, says Griswold, who is certified by Physicians for Human Rights.
“They may have witnessed violence or been beaten or raped.”
Providers who testify at asylum hearings as objective assessors need to know how to conduct a sensitive inquiry, she says.
“Sometimes, refugees have seen horrible things that don’t leave a physical mark but leave an imprint forever.”
According to Griswold, broaching these subjects with victims requires extraordinary care. “There are techniques we are trained to use — a process of inquiry and documentation that allows us to identify trauma and torture.”
“Survivors have their armor on,” she adds. “They want to protect you from knowing what has happened to them. You don’t want to strip off all the armor in one piece; they would fall apart. It’s a process.”
Griswold will provide care directly to refugees resettling in the Buffalo area.
She will conduct forensic exams to document and assess evidence of torture and trauma in refugees and asylum-seekers in Buffalo and Rochester.
In addition, she will testify at asylum hearings and conduct research to evaluate the program’s success.
Her work will give University at Buffalo students in the health sciences opportunities to become more familiar with issues in the refugee community.
This summer, two UB medical students will work with Griswold to help identify health and medical networks for refugees in Buffalo. They also will help determine which services may be missing.
Medical students assist refugees directly through clinical work with mentors in the community, notes second-year medical student Kathleen Soltis, president of the UB student chapter of Physicians for Human Rights.
“This gives us the opportunity to learn about different medical issues refugees experience that you don’t see in the rest of the community,” she says.
The center will help create a coordinated network of care for refugees.
“Now, if we have a referral for a refugee or asylum-seeker, we’ll have a better network of providers who can seamlessly care for them,” whether they need medical, social work or mental health counseling services, Griswold explains.
In addition, researching the project’s success will help identify gaps in needed services, notes Griswold. “It also will demonstrate how this project can help us use resources more wisely,” she adds.
The investment is expected to reap both personal and societal benefits.
“Treating people who have been victims of torture and trauma will, in the end, result in their becoming more successful, contributing members of the community,” she says.
To help meet a growing need, the center was conceived and funded by Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County — a refugee resettlement agency — through a grant from the New York State Health Foundation.
An estimated 1,500 new refugees resettle in Western New York annually from Sudan, Somalia, Burma, Iraq, Bhutan, Nepal and other conflict-ridden countries. More than 90 percent of the state’s refugees settle in upstate New York.
The more refugees coming from places experiencing major conflicts like Syria, the greater the chance they may have suffered trauma, torture or both, Griswold notes.
Along with other UB faculty members, Griswold was a speaker at Buffalo’s first collaborative Refugee Health Summit in April, which aimed to address problems refugees face when trying to access physical and mental health services.
The summit brought together professionals involved in health care, resettlement, education and community services as well as refugees to help improve and develop services.