Preparing Immigrants and Refugees for Public Health Emergencies in Hennepin County


Recent public health emergencies have highlighted the continuing need for public health officials to further improve communications with immigrant and refugee communities about the importance of being aware and prepared for infectious disease outbreaks, dangerous weather, public shootings, and other community emergencies.

In 2016, Wilder Research was contracted by Hennepin County Public Health Emergency Preparedness to conduct a study about emergency preparedness planning with nine immigrant and refugee communities in the county (Mexican, Hmong, South Asian Indian, Somali, Ethiopian, Oromo, Guinean, Liberian, and Sierra Leonean). The goal was to gather information about the culturally specific needs and communications practices of these communities to inform policies, practices, and communications related to public health emergencies.

Wilder Research interviewed 25 professionals and community leaders who work with immigrants in the Twin Cities to learn about the emergency preparedness needs of these communities and the potential role for community organizations in emergency preparation, response, and recovery. We also partnered with community-based organizations to host 15 focus groups with 165 community members. The community-based organizations we worked with, and to whom we are grateful to for their efforts and role in this work, are: Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES), Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research (HACER), Freedom Inc., SEWA – Asian Indian Family Wellness, Ka Joog, the Family Community Health Program at Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Oromo Culture Institute of Minnesota, and the Center for African Immigrants Recovery from Drugs and Alcohol (CAIR). Wilder Research was pleased to have had an opportunity to work on this project and to be able to share the results of what we learned. Here is a summary of what we found. The full report provides A LOT more information!

Building awareness and relationships

Similar to most U.S. communities, emergency preparedness is often not a priority within immigrant and refugee communities. Other more pressing needs take precedent for these community members, such as finding employment and securing housing. Immigrants and refugees have the added challenge of learning how to live in America. Many, especially those who are newer to the U.S., are unaware of resources that exist and where to look for help during a public health emergency. There are also some different perceptions and beliefs about risks, emergencies, and what people should do to prepare.

Building trusting relationships and connections with people from the immigrant and refugee communities that county staff hope to serve is essential. This includes attending community events and meetings, cross-training county staff to be able to explain all county service areas and refer people to the services and departments they need, and collaborating to share and gather valuable knowledge from communities about solutions based in cultural understanding. This will ensure that immigrant and refugee community members build their knowledge of and trust in Hennepin County as a good resource to help their communities prevent, plan for, and address public health emergencies.

Developing culturally responsive communications, resources, and services

Public health communications should be culturally responsive and appropriate to meet the specific needs of each immigrant and refugee community. This includes delivering information and communications in the languages(s) spoken by each community, in appropriate readability levels for various audience needs, and using pictures/images, video, and audio formats. Many immigrant and refugee communities do not typically use mainstream media outlets such as local television or radio news. More effective options include using culturally and language-specific television, radio, and social media channels, as well as automated phone calls, text messages, and phone apps. Messaging should also be sent out through community organizations and leaders.

Resources and services also need to be culturally appropriate, as well as trauma-informed. The specific behavioral health needs of these communities should be addressed -- many refugees have experienced prior trauma that could be triggered by emergency situations and cause additional emotional stress and suffering.

Partnering with community organizations

Community-based organizations are a resource commonly used by members of immigrant and refugee communities. Therefore, Hennepin County Public Health Emergency Preparedness should work with community organizations and leaders to develop and deliver education and training on public health emergencies and to establish emergency response plans within these specific communities.

Next steps

Hennepin County Public Health is working with Wilder Research to host two community sharing sessions to share key findings from the study and how they will inform the county’s emergency preparedness planning. Hennepin County staff will also share emergency preparedness tips and resources with attendees, including how to keep families and communities safe and ready to respond in an emergency. Members of immigrant and refugee communities and professionals who serve these communities are invited and welcome to attend one of the sessions:

August 14th, 6:30-8:00 p.m. @ Brookdale Library, 6125 Shingle Creek Pkwy., Brooklyn Center

August 19th, 3:00-4:30 p.m. @ North Regional Library-Minneapolis, 1315 Lowry Ave. N., Minneapolis

If you are interested in attending one of the sessions and you need translation services, please contact Matthew Ayres, Hennepin County Public Health Emergency Preparedness, at 612-543-2245 or Matthew.Ayres@Hennepin.us.

These community sharing sessions are one step in Hennepin County Public Health’s overall process of engaging the community in identifying needs and solutions and building relationships to better serve immigrant and refugee communities.