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Conference Addresses Refugee Women's Health
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Angie Chuang 

(The Oregonian, 09/05/03) - Organizers of today's African Women's Health Conference say the event is the culmination of four years' work with the new, predominantly Muslim refugee community. 

But the workshop marks the last project of Lutheran Community Services' Hawa, a state-funded program for refugee women and children from Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East and Afghanistan. The program's services ranged from training Muslim child-care workers so that refugee women would be more comfortable taking their children there, to tutoring in English as a second language. 

Grant funding for Hawa, the Arabic word for "Eve," expires in June. 

"It's that there aren't other services available," said Hazel Schnider, Hawa's workshop facilitator. "But we've had the luxury of giving personal service, and working with women and children one-on-one." 

Hawa, which began as a $30,000-a-year initiative for Somali women, evolved into a $176,000 program that served about 400 families from all over the world. 

Deborah Fisher, project coordinator, said the problem isn't lack of money, but that the natural cycles of grant funding mean that Hawa's organizers must find other sources. 

They've applied for other grants, she said, but since they started four years ago, more programs like Hawa have emerged nationwide. Hence, there's more competition.

High demand for conference the keen interest in today's health conference reflects the need for programs like Hawa. 

Nearly twice as many doctors and health care employees, mostly from Multnomah County Health Department, signed up for the workshop as organizers could accommodate at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Portland. 

While about 50 health care providers meet to outline the special needs of African refugee women, African women will gather to provide health information. The two groups will come together, along with interpreters, to discuss issues that come up during medical appointments. 

Schnider said misunderstandings have ranged from diet and exercise recommendations that are culturally inappropriate, to a disregard for higher standards of modesty in some African countries. 

Modified food pyramids that take into account the rice and pasta-based diets in countries like Somalia will be presented at the conference. Schnider said she's encouraging walking as exercise, since most of these refugee women aren't likely to participate in sports or join gyms. 

Female circumcision will also be discussed at the conference, Schnider said. 

"If doctors act shocked, or make moral judgments, these women shut down," she said. "You may feel this practice needs to change in Africa, but these women are already circumcised. They're not doing this here in the United States. It's very personal for them and they don't want a big issue made of it." 

Schnider recommends that doctors learn as much as they can about the practice, be matter-of-fact about it and know where to refer patients if they have problems with scarring. 

Fisher said being able to address such difficult issues shows how far Hawa has come with the community. 

"If this ends," she said, "we're going to lose a lot of knowledge and trust." 

More information on the Hawa program is available through Lutheran Community Services, 503-231-7480. 

Angie Chuang: 503-221-8219; angiechuang@news.oregonian.com.

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