Immigrant Draws on Personal Experience to Help Combat Asthma

Mariana Sánchez is a counselor at a community program that helps low-income families. (Photo via El Diario)

Mariana Sánchez, a counselor with a Harlem community program that serves families dealing with asthma, draws on her experience as an undocumented immigrant to connect with families, El Diario La Prensa reported. The article below was translated from Spanish. 

Like many of the Latinos living in Harlem that Mariana Sánchez helps to combat asthma, she knows what it is like to be low-income and live with the fear of being undocumented.

Sánchez, a health worker with the organization A.I.R. Harlem, earned a degree in biology from the Universidad Autónoma de México and hid from immigration authorities for seven years while working in tomato fields in California.

Thanks to that job, she became legalized. She came to New York in 1989 with the oldest of her five sons to work in a city factory. But the opportunity to volunteer at the Metropolitan Hospital of East Harlem changed her destiny. It was there that she made connections with the Asthma Smart Program, another initiative to reduce asthma in the area.

“Some of the immigrant mothers don’t know how to give the medicine to their children, but they’re afraid to speak up because they’re undocumented, or they feel shy because of cultural issues,” said Sánchez. When she first approaches immigrant mothers, many respond suspiciously because they’re afraid that their children will be taken away from them. Others speak dialects like Zapotec or Náhualt that Sánchez doesn’t know, but she doesn’t let that stop her.

Sánchez described how she gains their trust: “When I speak with them in Spanish, I tell them that I know what it’s like to go hungry, to sleep on the floor, to feel humiliated.”

Sánchez, 50, is one of six health workers in this community program, known previously as Harlem Children’s Zone Initiative, which helps low-income families, the majority of which are Latino and African-American. “I’ve helped about 3,000 families over 10 years,” she said proudly.

Referred by schools and hospitals in the area, many children and parents who turn to A.I.R. Harlem live in poorly maintained buildings where mold, humidity, dust, and pests like cockroaches, rats, and bedbugs constantly threaten their health.

One of Sánchez’ sons had asthma as a child, and the experience has allowed her to pinpoint the root of the problem: a lack of information and taboos surrounding the illness.

“The doctors gave me the inhaler for my son and I kept it.”

The majority of Sánchez’ clients don’t know what leads to an asthma attack. Triggers include smoke, dust, insecticides, garbage bins without lids, or not wearing warm enough clothing.

“For those who don’t know how to read, I put the medication in bags and label them with a sun or a moon so the parents know when to give it to their children.”

A regular day is full of obstacles. She has to cope with the frustration of not being able to do more for her clients. “I tell them that what I want is for their children to be healthy, not to miss school, and they should understand that even though their children have asthma, they are capable.”

Shoshana Brown, the director of A.I.R. Harlem, said the organization works with 282 local schools, comprising more than 500 families and 900 children, and that the primary goal is to focus on eliminating the conditions in the apartments where these families live. A.I.R. Harlem monitors more than 1,300 homes a year, and thanks to the organization’s efforts, visits to emergency rooms in the area have fallen by 50%.

A.I.R. Harlem bases its efforts on examinations of hospital records and school absences, which show that the asthma rate for children in Harlem runs as high as 30%. According to the Department of Health, the average asthma rate in the city is 8%.

Families that suffer from asthma can also have problems with negligent landlords, domestic violence, and depression. For that reason, A.I.R. Harlem also provides legal assistance for housing cases and connects families with other social service agencies.

“Everything that causes stress in a family sets off asthma in the children,” Brown warned. “Because of that, the goal is to help them change the stigma surrounding asthma and to lead a normal life.”

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