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My refugee story and our rights

  • Author: Ambika Kafle
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 19, 2019
  • Published September 19, 2019

The Chugach Mountains are hazy as they backdrop the Anchorage skyline as seen from west Anchorage, Alaska on Thursday, July 6, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Born and raised in a refugee camp in Nepal, I witnessed women in my family struggle to take care of their basic health needs. My sister went through her teenage years without access to sanitary pads and both of us lacked the language to talk about reproductive health because our mom was hesitant to mention it.

Many women in the refugee camps shared our story. Several resorted to taking their own lives because access to reproductive health care, much less conversations about it, was severely lacking. We had no rights to our own bodies or pathways to living healthy lives. But that changed when my family and I immigrated to the United States where we could hold new rights to the reproductive health care we always needed. While I am thankful for this broader scope of opportunities, I know that our rights to continue receiving care are under attack. What’s more, even if we do have rights, we often do not have true access to exercise our rights, and our access is likewise under attack.

As a member of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, or NAPAWF, I have been working alongside fierce Asian American and Pacific Islander, aka AAPI, women to uplift stories like mine. Immigrant communities deserve to be healthy and we deserve better care, as almost half of U.S. immigrant, non-citizen women of reproductive age are privately insured, while 19% rely on Medicaid and 34% go without insurance at all. Within the AAPI community, two-thirds are born outside of the U.S. and 35% have limited English proficiency. This presents unique challenges for AAPIs looking for culturally informed medical care that is both affordable and accessible to immigrants. And when we ignore AAPI immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, we risk leaving out the fastest-growing demographic, having expanded at four times the rate of the entire U.S. population.

We deserve comprehensive reproductive health care access because it boosts our agency over our lives, our families, and our communities. We must be able to make health care decisions with dignity, and our autonomy should be exercised on our own terms. However, with the public charge rule to take effect Oct. 15, the Trump administration wants to corner immigrant families into choosing between immigration status and seeing a doctor. As a refugee, I know what it’s like to be locked out of reproductive health care. Although now I can finally choose my provider, I cannot stand by while fellow immigrants are locked out of that opportunity.

That’s why this month, I will be joining NAPAWF members across the country at the Power Up Conference to be loud and clear that we will hold our legislators accountable for how their decisions affect some of the most at-risk, and often invisible members of the AAPI community. At the end of the conference, we will take on Capitol Hill to tell members of Congress that we need expanded access to health care for immigrant families. Together, we will urge them to introduce and pass the HEAL for Immigrant Women Act, which will provide health care coverage to all immigrants regardless of status. If the HEAL for Immigrant Women Act becomes law, people like me will have true access to exercise their rights in this country, and our right to have health care will not be in name only.

Before I came to the U.S., a chance for a healthy life was unimaginable. Because I had refugee status, my family and I were able to temporarily access health care and we were able to imagine a healthy and safe life after turmoil and trauma in the camps. However, for many other immigrants, this is not the case. Even immigrants who have legal permanent status cannot access health care for several years. Now with the public charge rule, they have to choose between necessary health care and a path to citizenship. This is why we support real solutions that take our lived experiences into account, like the HEAL for Immigrant Women Act.

As an AAPI refugee woman, I know that the rhetoric against my community has only strengthened in the past few years. Sitting at these intersections means many of my rights and access to my rights are under attack simultaneously. However, I stand with NAPAWF as we lead a coalition of organizations in movement to provide true health care access to all immigrants without delay. We look forward to seeing Congress enact the HEAL for Immigrant Women Act so that no one is erased in this battle for justice. And for me, having reproductive freedom means nothing unless my fellow immigrant and refugee communities have the same freedoms — with no strings attached.

Ambika Kafle is a member of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Anchorage Chapter.

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