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Hopeful Dreams and Health Disparities In Arab-Muslim Refugee Communities

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, May 10, 2012

Arab Muslim refugees in America face a shortage of culturally competent medical care, and some, particularly those uprooted by wars in Iraq, lack access to any health care, according to a Yale anthropologist.

Marcia Inhorn, PhD, William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs, says more research is needed on the health impact violent conflict and more needs to be done to address health disparities and reproductive health issues in refugee communities. Many Iraqi women and men have reproductive health issues. "Arab refugee men suffer from severe infertility, which we believe maybe related to the stresses and toxins of war," she said, adding that Iraqi and international media have been reporting what appears to be an increase in birth defects in Iraqi children. "Many refugees who lost everything have dreams of family, marriage and parenthood as a way of achieving their gender and family identity, and many want to recreate family lineages that have been destroyed by war."

Inhorn, whose scholarship has focused on gender, health and reproductive issues among Muslin men and women in the Middle East and the U.S., described some of her findings at the Unite for Sight conference at Yale University in her presentation "Reproductive Refugees: Health Disparities and Diasporic Dreams in Post 9/11 Arab America."

The Middle East, where 15 of 22 countries have suffered protracted violence, has the highest number of displaced persons in the world, Inhorn said.

Since the first Iraq wars in 1991-1992, nearly 150,000 Iraqi nationals resettled in the U.S., she said, many in economically depressed Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, where refugee Iraqis and recent immigrants from Afghanistan have an unemployment rate three times the national average. "Parts of Detroit look worse than Lebanon, with burned buildings, vacant lots, crumbling infrastructure," observed Inhorn, who has lived and worked in Mid-East war zones. Because having children is part of a Muslim cultural mandate for adult personhood, she explained, infertility is a source of stigma and suffering for men and women. Poverty, lack of health insurance, widespread anti-immigrant sentiment and language barriers make routine health care inaccessible, she said, and expensive assisted reproductive technologies are unaffordable. She believes infertility should be a family planning issue and part of available health care.

Inhorn said the plight of this community worsened after 9/11. "Muslims are vilified. Arab Muslim men are viewed as dangerous, untrustworthy, violence prone and religiously fanatical," she said, alluding to what she called an American paradox. "The reason they are here is the American initiated wars in their home countries. After they helped us in these wars, they come here to find themselves unwelcome and facing increasing incidents of anti-Arab discrimination."

"Iraqis in particular fear returning home because of ongoing political violence," she said, "and the once-fine Iraqi health care system is completely shattered." She added that the Muslim refugee population could be described as stranded in Michigan, with little hope of finding affordable health care.

In addition to Michigan, other states with large Arab and Muslim populations include California, New York, New Jersey, and Florida. The U.S. Refugee Admission Program has recently been relocating new refugees to New Haven. Inhorn suggests that the interlocking relationships of attitudes toward ethnicity, gender, appearance, race, and religion that act synergistically to generate discrimination and systematic forms of oppression need to be fully examined.

Inhorn’s report on Arab-Muslim refugee health in America, co-authored with Gomal Serour, is published in The Lancet. She also published extensively on gender, health, religious, medical and bioethical issues in the Middle East.

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