Opening doors by bridging cultures

Sanaa Abduljabbar is a person refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers can turn to for culturally appropriate access to health and social services in Greater Portland.

“I feel that when you help others, you just open a new door for them, especially when they are living in a new world for them. It’s a new culture, a new education system, a new health system. Everything is new,” says Abduljabbar.

Abduljabbar is a community health worker at the nonprofit Maine Access Immigrant Network in Portland, a job she’s held for more than a year. Sometimes this means connecting new Mainers to appropriate resources by speaking their language, but she’s quick to point out that her work goes beyond language interpretation and includes advocacy work. She describes herself as “… a bridge between a person from the same culture and agencies that need to understand that culture, and what the culture means for a person.”

Abduljabbar and her colleagues at the organization are important people on the front lines of providing health literacy, health-care enrollment and coordination of health-care benefits and non-clinical care. New Mainers from Africa, the Middle East and other regions visit her office in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood, and it is not unusual for Abduljabbar to move with ease from Arabic to Kurdish to English during the course of a typical workday.

As a community health worker, Abduljabbar might accompany someone to a doctor’s appointment and help explain the cultural importance of a common herbal medication the patient is familiar with.

“It goes both ways,” she says.

The patient might learn about Western medications, while the doctor might learn about herbal medicines from the patient’s culture.

“Because I’m from the same culture as many of the people I work with, I understand,” she says.

But Abduljabbar is quick to point out that she also supports people who don’t speak her language or share her culture. Recently, she supported a woman from Somalia,with the help of a language interpreter, in navigating through the Affordable Care Act signup process.

Abduljabbar is from Mosul, Iraq. Along with her husband, sister and two sons, she has lived in Portland for six years. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology and education from the University of Mosul, and before she left Iraq, she taught middle- and high-school biology. Helping others is something Abduljabbar says runs in her family.

“I feel that is something that I grew up with. My family is like that, both my dad and my mom. I grew up with this family who were always trying to give their hands to others who need help. So, it’s something that’s not strange for me. It’s in my character.”

She is proud that her two high school-age sons are growing up with the same mentality.

Abduljabbar says she didn’t receive the kind of support that Maine Access Immigrant Network provides when her family first arrived in Portland in 2010.

“I was one of these people who came to this country without knowing the new system. I knew English, but it’s not only about the language. It’s about the new system. Life is different here,” she says.

At first, Abduljabbar explored her new community by taking classes, volunteering in schools, and in her neighborhood whenever she could.

“I’m trying to encourage my clients here to get involved with the community. That doesn’t mean you will lose your culture. You can keep your culture. That’s what I am doing,” she adds.

The belief that people who need help today will be able to support people in the future guides Adduljabbar’s work.

“I teach them to go step by step to improve their skills and their lives. And one day, they can be independent and help others,” she smiles. “When I’m listening to people and engaging in their issues, we can, if we put our hands together, help each other. We can pass these barriers. I care for the person that needs my help. Any person who comes to me for help, I will help, no matter if he is a Muslim, a Christian, or an American. We need each other.”

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