Making healthcare more accessible for Cleveland’s Congolese community

Story and Photos by Michael Indriolo | The Land

Snow fell outside last Saturday, but the mood was warmer inside the Amour du Christ Church on Clark Avenue where a few of Cleveland’s Congolese refugees braved the cold for a health clinic put on by IKON Health Foundation and The Refugee Response’s Community Advisory Board. 

This health clinic, like its predecessor at Cleveland’s Somali Community Center in February, was designed to make basic health services more accessible for local refugee populations who face language, cultural and logistical barriers to getting healthcare they need.

Saturday’s clinic didn’t draw a huge crowd or feature as many services as the one at the Somali Community Center, which provided Covid-19 vaccinations and dental health education to dozens who packed the center. Still, those who showed up said their community needs more health clinics like this, which offered blood pressure and sugar screenings provided by NEOMED pharmacy student Ikenna Ogwuegbu and the volunteers at IKON, which Ogwuegbu co-founded.

Cleveland’s Congolese community is among the city’s largest and fastest-growing immigrant communities with more than 700 refugees settling here from 2012 to 2020. Amour du Christ Church is based in the Bridge Community Center, which is owned by Envision Cleveland, a local religious nonprofit that, among other services, helps refugees settle in Cleveland. 

The Land spent time talking with the few Congolese Clevelanders who came to get their health screened. Here’s what we saw: 

Ikenna Ogwuegbu helps Congolese Refugee Elijah Kidjana sign in for health screenings. Kidjana’s journey to America took years, he said. Decades of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo forced him from his home in the city of Kisangani. He moved to another city, Goma, but, “war found me in Goma,” he said. He left Congo in 2008. “Today, you can be good — tomorrow, you don’t know,” he said. “You leave everything, and you are going, you’re new, you don’t know where you are going.”
IKON volunteer Ezziree Morrow speaks with Kidjana after taking his blood pressure. Kidjana said the word about the clinic hadn’t spread enough through the local Congolese community, and that he’s hoping IKON will host another one. Ogwuegbu said he’s working with the dental care brand Colgate to bring the Congolese community dental education and dental care kits sometime in the near future. “We are happy with what you are doing here,” Kidjana said. “This is very, very important…For next time, we’ll try to make communication for everybody. We need people come to test their blood.”
IKON secretary Mariah Carlton tests the blood sugar of Congolese refugee Inette Masika, Kidjana’s wife. “People of color always have this lack of access to a lot of things, not just healthcare,” Carlton said. “When people of color do see other people of color in the health care field, you automatically get this sense of home, of trust. You realize that it’s easier to talk, to communicate to patients because you understand their language or you are able to break things down a little bit better where they can understand what’s going on with their health.”
Dragana Zivak, a pharmacist at The Centers, takes Pascal Dro’s blood pressure.
Vincent Tsimole said his blood pressure is higher than he’d like, so he’s planning to follow up with his doctor at Neighborhood Family Practice.
Tsimole moved to Cleveland five years ago after leaving The Democratic Republic of the Congo for Burundi. “Life here is very, very well,” he said. “We have food, we have transportation, we have a house.” He’s in the process of applying for U.S. citizenship now.

Michael Indriolo is a reporting fellow at The Land.