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Oakland Pediatrician Helps Refugees Navigate New Culture

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) An estimated 400 to 500 people living in East Oakland are refugees who've fled political oppression in Burma, the southeast Asian country also known as Myanmar. And they're navigating their way in a whole new culture, thanks to the kindness of a soft-spoken, unassuming pediatrician who is this week's Jefferson Award winner.

Many low income Burmese families in East Oakland are getting the health care they need, thanks to pediatrician Dr. Joan Jeung.

Five years ago, new immigrants asked Jeung to help Oakland's growing Burmese refugee population. She responded by organizing health fairs, offering free checkups. Patient surveys revealed troubling trends.

"The great majority of them were not employed," she remembered. "Almost all of them were below the federal poverty line and the great majority under the line for extreme poverty."

Many could not read or write, and even Bay Area translators weren't speaking their language. So Jeung took action.

"We came to Asian Health Services, which was just opening this clinic in 2010, (and asked) will you open this new clinic of this new population that's largely unserved?" she explained.

They did, and Jeung secured grants to help the new immigrants navigate their way from how to fill a prescription to how to find a job.

One of the most important things Jeung has contributed at the clinic is to make sure the translating is done in the right language. Most Bay Area translators had been speaking Burmese, but most of the new immigrants are from minority groups who speak Karen and other lesser known languages.

And she formed a mothers' group like one where she teaches parenting skills to Mongolian mothers like Tsomuka Ebo.

"I like the real personal touch and connecting with other parents as well," Ebo said.

Jeung credits a grant called the Healthy Tomorrows Partnership for Children, funded by the federal Maternal Child Health Bureau and co-administered by the American Academy of Pediatrics. She says without this funding, the mother's groups would never have gotten off the ground.

Jeung kept up with the community's needs as the babies started growing up and going to school, she and her husband opened their home to weekly tutoring sessions. More than 20 students and volunteer tutors fill the Jeung home on Thursday nights.

Volunteer Holly Colvin says the kids see Dr. Jeung as a role model.

"They're able to see her giving back to the community not just in the doctor's office, but give back to them and tutor them," said Colvin.

Jeung and her husband even became foster parents to two teenaged Burmese refugees, biological sisters Bonny and Bethsy.

Bethsy says her foster mother helped them learned English, get to college, and start new lives.

"She's like my real Mom. Besides, she's like my best friend, too," Bethsy explained.

So for extending a heart of compassion to Oakland's most recent Asian immigrants, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Dr. Joan Jeung.

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