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Emal Walizada, 23, fled to the United States as the Taliban took over his city in Afghanistan. He graduated with a college degree in computer science, followed by some graduate work in India. YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG
Emal Walizada is a college-educated IT specialist and an inventor, having won awards for a robotic device that detects the presence of explosives. He had an IT business in Kabul developing software for management systems, accounting and other applications.
When a friend alerted him that the Taliban were taking the city, he had to make a quick decision. He had family and business ties to the Americans and the (disintegrating) Afghan government.
“I was not safe,” he said. He dropped everything and headed for the airport. He said in an interview he was there for six days with no food and very little water. “I saw people drop from dehydration,” he said.
He finally got a flight to Qatar, was there for 15 days, and then got to Fort Dix, N.J. He was there until late January, living in a room with 46 other people. He had lost everything: the Taliban destroyed his office and his PC server and other computer equipment. He lost his house, car and bank account. Worse, his father died of COVID-19.
But his brother, who had worked for a U.S. agency and had gotten out earlier, lived in Hartford with their mother and sister. Emal got on a bus by himself. It almost sounds like a cliche immigrant story, but he indeed had just $5 in his pocket.
No matter, he got to work. A fellow Afghan connected him with Bob Fishman, who in turn referred him to a nonprofit called International Hartford, started in 2016 by former lawyer and state legislator Art Feltman, which helps refugees and immigrants start and sustain businesses.
To help Emal get on his feet, Feltman reached out to a successful immigrant businesswoman named Maggie Drag, who came from Poland three decades ago as a teenager and started a home care agency, Euro-American Connections, in Berlin. She immediately sent a check.
“Immigrants helping immigrants,” she said through a spokesman.
Emal just got his driver’s license. He has a job stacking shelves in a pharmacy warehouse and is happy to have it, but he is looking forward to being his own boss in his own field. And when that happens, he said, he will pay it forward and help arriving immigrants. He has time — he is 23 years old. He said he is “very happy” to be in Hartford.
Helping Afghans or other immigrants is not a one-way street. Immigrants are very good for the economy. Feltman said immigrants are twice as likely as other Americans to start a business; they launch 30% of new firms in Connecticut. He said there are more than 37,000 foreign-born entrepreneurs in Connecticut. While immigrants comprise 15% of the state’s population, they own 24% of its businesses, he said. By starting a business, immigrants avoid a problem Feltman sees regularly: being underemployed because their skills or credentials from their native countries aren’t recognized here.
Emal Walizada Afghan Refugee
Connecticut lawmakers OK Medicaid for children 12 and younger regardless of immigration status
Children 12 years old and younger whose guardians meet the qualifying income limit will be eligible for Medicaid coverage regardless of their immigration status beginning Jan 1.
Included in the state budget that was adopted by the House and Senate was an expansion of the Medicaid program, known as HUSKY in Connecticut. Last year, lawmakers opened the program to children 8 and younger — regardless of immigration status — who come from households earning up to 201% of the federal poverty level (for a family of four, that’s $55,778). Children from households earning between 201% and 325% of the federal poverty level also qualify but are subject to an asset test.
This year, legislators expanded the pool to children 12 and younger and are allowing any child in that age group who signs up for coverage to keep the insurance through age 19. Children older than 12 on Jan. 1 would not be eligible.
Lawmakers have set aside $400,000 for this year’s expansion.
“The fact that this was able to be included in the budget shows the power our community has,” said Carolina Bortolleto, a volunteer with the HUSKY for Immigrants Coalition and a co-founder of Connecticut Students for a Dream. “And it shows that our legislators know this was the right thing to do.”
Bortolleto helped organize days of rallies outside the state Capitol this spring, bringing together undocumented residents, health care workers, high school students, advocates and others to call for an expansion of the Medicaid program.
Proponents had hoped the legislature would broaden the program this year to children 18 and younger, regardless of their immigration status, but the bill that would have done that did not advance beyond the Human Services Committee. It was defeated by a 10-10 tie vote, with every Republican and three of the committee’s 13 Democrats voting against it, including co-chair Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden.
Some legislators voiced concerns that the expansion was premature because of a lack of information on the number of residents who would qualify for the program and what the cost would be to the state.
After the bill died, lawmakers crafted a more modest expansion of HUSKY in the state budget. Despite a smaller financial commitment, the move angered some representatives who debated the budget in the House.
“That bill, in Human Services, failed. It failed with votes on both sides of the aisle, and we’re moving it forward,” said Rep. Jay Case, R-Winsted, during the House debate. “Is that the right process when something fails in committee? ‘OK, we’ll just put it in the budget.’ That’s where I have a problem.”
Language from failed bills or other proposals can sometimes end up in the budget implementer, even when the proposals have only a nominal connection to the budget.
Bortolleto said she and others will continue to advocate in future years for another broadening of Medicaid. She hopes all residents, regardless of age and of immigration status, will eventually be eligible.
“We’re recommitting to the fight, because health care is a human right. No one should be denied health care — a chance at survival — because of their immigration status, no matter their age,” she said.
Hundreds of people testified on the proposal or wrote to lawmakers this spring, many in support of expanding the Medicaid program.
“My son is a U.S. citizen, but my husband and I do not have HUSKY or any other health insurance because we are immigrants,” resident Sandra Aguilar wrote to legislators. “Having health insurance would be a huge help for us because we both need dental care … I had to spend $300 to get a tooth fixed at a private dentist. It took me a long time to get the tooth fixed because for my family, $300 is too much and we cannot afford it.
“My husband is prediabetic and has not been able to get the medical care he needs because every medical appointment comes with a cost that affects our finances.”
Karina Flores, a new Britain resident and student at Capital Community College, said her parents are uninsured and struggle to access health care.
“Coming from a Hispanic household, I firsthand witnessed the struggles my parents would have to go through just to be able to receive medical assistance,” she testified. “At times they wouldn’t even go to the doctor’s office for any checkups due to being low income and not having health insurance.”
“My mother was first diagnosed with type 2 diabetes when I was 18 years old, a senior in high school. Unfortunately, she didn’t have health insurance, which was super hard to pay for medications and doctor visits — which made me have to work extra hours to help her out,” Flores said. “We will never know when and why we are going to get sick. … We all deserve to have a source of medical help. Immigration status does not determine how much of a human we are.”
Jay Sicklick, deputy director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, called this year’s expansion “progress.” Analysts project that opening HUSKY to kids 12 and younger would add 1,020 children to the program next fiscal year and 2,750 by 2024.
“You have to start somewhere. And if the starting point is [children] 12 and under, I think we’ve made some progress,” Sicklick said. “In a perfect world, one would think that insuring the entire cohort of individuals up to age 19 would be the primary focus … but at the end of the day, some progress is better than none. We’ll have to work diligently next year and in other future years to ensure … no one gets left behind.”
Karen Dworski: Children should have access to medical and mental health care regardless of immigration status
Tragically, thousands of Connecticut children don’t have access to medical and mental health care — no diagnosis, no treatment, no medication. Because of their immigration status, these children don’t qualify for the state’s HUSKY program, which provides mental health and medical services to poor families. This is despite the legislature’s bipartisan decision to address the need for youth mental health services, which was reported by The Courant on March 15.
Connecticut’s children are facing an unprecedented increase in mental health problems. Melissa Santos, division chief of pediatric psychology at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, said: “The high rates of depression, one in four youth now experiencing symptoms of depression, one in five youth experiencing symptoms of anxiety, and perhaps most notably, which the advisory indicated we’re seeing here in Connecticut, is the number of kids ending up in the emergency room due to suicide attempts.” She goes on to state that racial and ethnic minority youth “are disproportionately impacted by mental health prior to the pandemic.”
As a mental health professional, I am alarmed at the preventable damage that is occurring among Connecticut’s children, including undocumented immigrant youth. We know that when mental health needs are not addressed, not only does this generation of children struggle, but future generations struggle, too. Mental health problems affect all aspects of life, such as performance in school, forming healthy relationships and maturing developmentally. Mental illness is painful not only to the child but also to all who love and care for them.Connecticut can and must do better. Legislation enabling medical and mental health treatment through HUSKY for all income-eligible children, regardless of immigration status, is essential right now.
Last session, state legislators listened to medical professionals, the immigrant community and their allies when they passed legislation to open HUSKY to all children from birth to age 8, along with prenatal and postpartum care for pregnant women, in 2021. But what about older kids? Medical and mental health needs don’t disappear when a child turns 9. That’s why community groups are urging HUSKY access to age 18. Without HUSKY medical insurance, these kids won’t be able to receive the treatment that other Connecticut children get. And we are in the midst of a youth mental health crisis.
The issue of cost has been seen as an obstacle, but it is a false one. Undocumented immigrants pay $500 million in taxes yearly and only $10 million, 2% of that annual contribution, would cover the increase in HUSKY coverage to age 18. Clearly there is the money to support the HUSKY expansion.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued an advisory on youth mental health, saying, “Our obligation to act is not just medical — it’s moral. I believe that, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an unprecedented opportunity as a country to rebuild in a way that refocuses our identity and common values, puts people first and strengthens our connections to each other.” As Murthy makes clear, we have an obligation to act to ensure that all Connecticut children have access to medical and mental health treatment.
Let’s put all of our children first. Let’s do what’s best for all of our children, families and communities and what’s best for our state. Let’s see Connecticut legislators use this legislative session to ensure this basic right by passing HUSKY for immigrants.Karen Dworski lives in Unionville.
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Sunday, September 13th at 3:00pm Click HERE to register for this Virtual (Zoom) Event.
Hello! West Hartford, and its community partners, would like to invite you to attend an exciting storytelling event that will be held online through Zoom and viewable on WHCi.
We will show three short documentary films by and about people from Bhutan, Somalia, and Puerto Rico, followed by a panel discussion with film-makers, film subjects and local community members. Our hope is that this public dialogue about migration and immigration,
stimulated by the experiential films, will give participants an opportunity for connection, understanding, and ideas for supportive actions.
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*** ARCHIVES ***
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