African refugees are said to be fine

October 13, 2006|by ERIN CUNNINGHAM

HAGERSTOWN - A day after being evacuated from their homes and briefly quarantined during an apparent misunderstanding, 12 African refugees were said to be fine.

On Wednesday, Hagerstown Police believed that two families living at 25 1/2 W. Franklin St., from Somalia and Burundi, had a possibly dangerous illness. They were evaluated by Health Department officials. A pregnant mother and her daughter, from the Burundian family, were taken to Washington County Hospital.

Richard Cline, director of the Virginia Council of Churches refugee resettlement program, said the mother had morning sickness and a noncontagious medical condition. It was unclear why her daughter was taken to the hospital.

Other refugees and other building residents returned to their homes.

Cline, whose organization helped place the families in Hagerstown, said refugees coming to the United States are often fleeing political, ethnic or religious persecution. That was the case with the two families evaluated Wednesday.


He said the Burundian family left because of danger they faced due to their ethnicity.

They arrived in the U.S. about three months ago and speak no English, he said. They speak French and a tribal dialect.

"There was a definite language barrier," Cline said.

Emergency personnel couldn't communicate with the refugees and figure out that they weren't sick.

Officials said another African refugee, who didn't live at 25 1/2 W. Franklin St., helped translate, along with a health official who spoke French.They found out that the woman had morning sickness.

Cline said the woman went to the hospital a few days earlier because of the severity of her nausea and vomiting.

"They had been receiving medical attention since they arrived," he said. "I think she's having a hard time with morning sickness with her pregnancy, which is why she went to the hospital."

Cline said each refugee was able to voluntarily go to the hospital after Wednesday's scare.

The Virginia Council of Churches is an affiliate of Church World Service, which operates in Virginia and Maryland, Cline said. The organization resettles refugees processed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Ten volunteer agencies in a public/private partnership with the U.S. government resettle refugees approved for entry into the country, Cline said.

Refugees are interviewed and screened. Two security checks are done.

"Not all families that wish to come and be resettled are approved," he said.

They go to other countries as refugees. They can return later or settle in other countries and eventually become citizens.

Before leaving their home country, refugees must have a health screening, he said. They have another within 30 days of arriving in the U.S. The Hagerstown families had health screenings in their countries and were examined again by Washington County Health Department officials, Cline said.

He said they were in the process of getting jobs, which is part of the refugee program and lets them be self-sufficient.

Over the past three years, about 250 refugees have come to Hagerstown.

George Miller, with the Virginia Council of Churches' Hagerstown office, said that Wednesday afternoon a refugee child handed a Hagerstown Police officer a piece of paper with 25 1/2 W. Franklin St. written on it. The officer took the child to that address, where he found the pregnant woman on the floor vomiting.

"He was immediately concerned and received other input that led him to believe this was some sort of an outbreak and he called the emergency response team," Miller said.

Emergency personnel set up large yellow decontamination tents, where the refugees were held for hours until health officials determined there was no public health threat.

Miller said Thursday he believed that all refugees, including the two taken to the hospital, were back at home.

Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith did not return a call for comment Thursday.

Hagerstown Fire Department Chief Gary Hawbaker said he was pleased with Wednesday's response to what could have been a health crisis.

"It all worked the way it was supposed to work," he said.

Miller and Cline also were pleased with the emergency response.

"It was a very good live test of our emergency capabilities," Miller said. "I would say we passed with flying colors."

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