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Experience as refugee shapes Nile Sisters' mission

From left: Nile Sisters Development Initiative includes Lula J. Bom, community health advocate, Yu Yu Khaing, community outreach specialist, Nancy D. Martey, refugee advocate, and Founder Elizabeth Lou. Photo by Adam Ward
From left: Nile Sisters Development Initiative includes Lula J. Bom, community health advocate, Yu Yu Khaing, community outreach specialist, Nancy D. Martey, refugee advocate, and Founder Elizabeth Lou. Photo by Adam Ward

 

Elizabeth Lou, founder of Nile Sisters Development Initiative, arrived in the United States in 1999 as a refugee from South Sudan.

With her and her husband working to support a family of five children, her priorities were clear. She first learned to drive, then looked for a job.

The third thing she knew she needed was health insurance.

"First [I had] to understand what is health insurance?" Lou said. "Because, mind you, we are coming from a background where there is no health insurance. When you are sick, you go to hospital."

The need to learn how life in the U.S. works, drove her to create a support group, which, in 2002, grew into a nonprofit working to help refugees. Members of the support group wanted to include the name of the Nile River, the world's longest river that flows through multiple countries, to represent the group's inclusivity.

"In my experience I know that all refugees that come to the United States, we have the same struggle, the same experience," Lou said. "No matter what ethnic group you come from, our struggle is the same, because we are coming from a different system altogether."

The group's focus follows Lou's own path: driving education, job training and health insurance. It does enrollment for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and has two certified enrollment specialists on staff: Nancy Martey and Lula Bom.

The California Endowment supports Nile Sisters as part of its Building Healthy Communities Initiative. The initiative is a $1-billion effort in 14 communities throughout California, including City Heights, to change the way that health happens.

Martey, the group's Refugee Advocate, said its Affordable Care Act work is continuing.

"Even though it is not open enrollment right now, there is still Medi-Cal enrollment," Martey said.

Bom, the Community Health Advocate, said the group had run into many misunderstandings about Obamacare and Medi-Cal.

"We have people who don't even know that Medi-Cal is part of all year-round enrollment," Bom said.

Bom said Nile Sisters' ability to speak many languages allowed them to enroll people originally from about 18 different countries, including Ethiopia, Haiti and Iran.

"There is a lot of work to be done to get people on the same page," Bom said. "People don't know what the penalty is -- don't know what the deadline is."

But Nile Sisters does more than provide services, Lou said.

"Nile Sisters is in the middle of refugees," she said. "We shop with these people. We ride buses together. We do events together. We go to church together. When they come here, we are more than friends. We are just like family. We give them service from our heart that makes the difference."

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