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Meet the Idaho refugees fighting to keep their adopted country safe during coronavirus

Posted at 12:25 PM, May 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-17 14:28:39-04

This article was originally published by Nicole Foy of the Idaho Statesman.

Nabila Hamid and Halyna Isaieva began working as environmental service technicians at St. Luke’s Meridian Medical Center less than a year ago, tasked with cleaning patient rooms and preventing the spread of disease to other parts of the hospital. The single mothers were hired after graduating from a work-training program meant to help recent refugees like them develop marketable skills for higher paying jobs.

Now, they both find themselves on the front lines of the fight to slow the spread of coronavirus in Idaho.

“I remember when it first happened,” said Isaieva, a refugee from Ukraine and mother of five. She was assigned to the emergency room when the hospital got its first coronavirus patient. “All of us, we were afraid to see that room in our schedule. We were scared to come in. There was that fear, that we were going to get sick and die.”

The intense fear and uncertainty eventually subsided, both women said, and the Treasure Valley appears to have passed the peak of the deadly first wave of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. But hospitals will continue to care for COVID-19 patients for the forseeable future, which means environmental service technicians — many of whom are refugees, immigrants and new English-speakers — play an increasingly crucial and unnoticed role keeping people in the Boise area safe and healthy.

“When we talk about heroes, I always think about the EVS staff as definitely the heroes,” said Russ Harbaugh, director of support services for the St. Luke’s Health System in the Treasure Valley. “They just do what they need to do. We couldn’t do it without them. We couldn’t even run the hospitals if we didn’t have these individuals doing this amazing job.”

HIDDEN ‘HEROES’ OF IDAHO’S HEALTH CARE SYSTEM

At least 282 Idaho health care workers have contracted coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic — more than 10% of Idaho’s total cases.

Doctors and nurses caring directly for coronavirus patients aren’t the only ones at risk. Despite the best efforts of hospital staff, many health care workers who never come in contact with the coronavirus patients in their hospitals are still falling ill across the country.

“Refugees and immigrants are a critical part of our society,” said Julianne Donnelly Tzul, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Boise. “They are keeping the engine of our community running. They are making the meat on our dinner tables. They are cleaning and existing in spaces even as many community members have, maybe, stepped out of those spaces for their safety.”

Environmental service technicians, in particular, operate as hospitals’ first line of defense to prevent the virus from spreading out of patients’ rooms. Hamid and Isaieva clean every surface imaginable and dispose of contaminated items safely. EVS techs have less exposure to coronavirus patients than they usually do with other patients, both women said, as St. Luke’s has tightened safety protocols to protect staff, but both women said the chance to do their part to help patients who desperately need it is what motivates them.

“They went into this very powerfully, and I have been so amazed and proud of their resiliency,” said Heidi Ridenour, who manages environmental services at St. Luke’s Meridian and supervises several refugees on her staff. “It’s been an amazing experience to see how passionate and prepared they are every day.”

A number of refugees like Hamid and Isaieva work as EVS techs in the Treasure Valley because Idaho hospitals have struggled to hire qualified and trained support staff during previously low unemployment rates. In 2018, the International Rescue Committee began partnering with the Treasure Valley Health Council, Saint Alphonsus, the College of Western Idaho and Micron to offer a free EVS pre-apprenticeship for English Language Learners. Since then, St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus have hired 22 graduates of the course.

Rebecca Wilkey, the career pathways coordinator at the International Rescue Committee, said many Boise refugees start out as hospital support staff because they worked in the medical sector in their countries of origin or aspire to medical careers in the U.S. Hamid, for example, was days away from taking her Certified Nurse Assistant exam before it was canceled due to coronavirus. She told the Statesman she eventually wants to be a nurse.

“For them, I think this moment isn’t something new,” Wilkey said. “They have a special history in being first responders and have been really good at keeping everyone safe in their communities.”

BALANCING FAMILY OBLIGATIONS WITH ESSENTIAL LABOR

Hamid and Isaieva’s work — or worries — don’t end when they leave the hospital. Like many health care workers who interact with coronavirus patients, they have to be careful they don’t bring the virus home to their families, disposing of work scrubs and showering at work.

“For me, I was anxious a little bit because I don’t have much family here, and if something happened to me, my kids will be alone.” said Hamid, who left behind years of war in Sudan with her children and ex-husband. She arrived in Boise in 2012. “And I was also anxious that maybe I could transmit the virus to them.”

With schools online and day cares closed, the single mothers have turned to their community to help them balance childcare with the demands of their jobs. A Somali neighbor helps Hamid with her children, ages 10 and 6, while Isaieva’s friend and oldest children watch their siblings at their Nampa apartment during her shifts.

Halyna Isaieva
Halyna Isaieva, a refugee from Ukraine, is the sole supporter for her family Ñ from left, Artur, 15, Anna, 4, Vlad, 16, Maksym, 6, and Diana, 9. Isaieva went through a program at IRC that helps refugees get training for higher paying jobs, and now she works as an EVS techs (Environmental Services Technicians) in the St. Luke’s health system, cleaning and disinfecting hospitals. Katherine Jones KJONES@IDAHOSTATESMAN.COM

They wrestle with remote learning challenges and children tired of being cooped up in small apartments. Both obsessively teach their children the hygiene they hope will prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Isaieva said she feels lucky to be in America during the pandemic. She arrived in Idaho in March 2018, through a program that prioritizes Christian refugees from post-Soviet countries. Even though so many people have died in the U.S. and more are struggling, she’s grateful to be in a country that delivers laptops to students, tries to pay unemployment insurance and prosecutes price gougers. The family members she left in Ukraine have not been so lucky.

“Knowing we are in a good position in America makes me feel better, but not stress out too much,” Isaieva said. “I don’t know what is going to happen with my country that I came from. I’m lucky that we are here and have all those opportunities that other people don’t have.”

When they need it, they draw strength from their team of EVS techs and other hospital staff, which Hamid said feels like “one big family.” Isaieva looks forward to piling her five kids into the van to eat at their favorite Chinese restaurant, or going back to church and singing in the choir.

When things get difficult or fears about the future resurface, both women said they rely on their faiths to make it through.

“Going to the hospital everyday to help people, according to my religion, I believe this is my destiny,” Hamid said. “I am not afraid. I do what I can to protect my family, but I am not afraid to go the hospital to help somebody. And the main job for the nurse or a doctor is to be a human being first. In the end we are all human beings; we need to give something back.”

Nabila Hamid
Nabila Hamid, a refugee from Sudan, is a single mom supporting her two sons, Adam Ahmed, 6, left, and Saghl Khamis, 10. She works as EVS techs (Environmental Services Technicians) in the St. Luke’s health system, cleaning and disinfecting hospitals. A program at IRC helps refugees like Hamid get training for higher paying jobs, and now she fills an increasingly crucial and sometimes hazardous role keeping hospitals and the Treasure Valley community safe during coronavirus. Katherine Jones KJONES@IDAHOSTATESMAN.COM