Health & Medicine

Helping refugees with one part of American life — the pharmacy

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Refugees from Bhutan attend a class on how to navigate an American pharmacy in Columbus, Ohio. 


Helen Kim

Something unexpected happens in the upstairs breakroom of a Kroger supermarket in Columbus, Ohio. 

It's a class on something that seems basic: the pharmacy.

But it’s all new for the people here, about eight refugees from Bhutan. Many of them fled their homeland years ago — there was an ethnic cleansing — and went to refugee camps next door in Nepal. Now, they are restarting their lives here in Columbus.

It makes sense.

Rent is cheaper here than other US cities. There are also jobs and resettlement agencies. The community offers support, but there are blind spots, like the pharmacy. Back in the refugee camps, health care was rudimentary. Pharmacy students at Ohio State University spotted a gap and created this class, which covers everything from prescription labels and the refill system, to dosages and expiration dates.

The refugees are also asked if they take any herbal medicine.

Santa Bahadur, who arrived in Ohio just three weeks ago, mentions a particular plant that some people bring from Nepal and prepare at home. The students tell the group to let their doctor know things like this in case it creates complications with other medicines.

There are practical tips, too, like how to open a child-proof cap. Press down, twist counterclockwise.

People practice and there are oohs and aahs as everyone masters it. There is also a handout that sketches out different common ailments. People can use the sheet to point to what they're suffering from if they don't know the word for it in English.


A handout in a class about how the US pharmacy system works for refugees. It can be used to point to different ailments people are suffering from but don't know the word for in English.


Monica Campbell

Helen Kim, a pharmacy fellow at Ohio State, helped start the program and can relate to the refugees, having moved from South Korea to Canada and eventually the US with her family when she was young. “Myself and my parents went through pretty much the same thing,” she says. “We as immigrants, or somebody who is newly resettled, just do not know how to navigate. Period.”

There is also the risk that if people feel unsure how pharmacies work, and don’t get their medication, or don't take it correctly, they can end up sick, unable to work and provide for their families.

The day ends with a trip down to the pharmacy itself. The students go over the pick-up and drop-off windows, and the aisles filled with meds. Then comes everyone’s favorite part: the blood pressure machine. None of the Bhutanese knew what it was before. Bahadur takes the first crack at it, and then everyone else lines up to try.

Looking on is Ben Michaels, the pharmacist here. He says the class makes his job easier. "I might see these people walking around, but I would have no idea what their stories were or where they came from or even what language they spoke," he says.

This Kroger also now subscribes to an over-the-phone medical translation service. "It’s actually extremely quick, even for Nepali, which is not as common as Spanish or French," says Michaels. "Nepali we can normally get under a minute and a half start to finish." It’s an investment, but the store manager says it’s worth it. Customers become loyal, and there are no errors because of cultural barriers.

When asked what this class means to him, Bahadur says it gives him the confidence he needed just the other day. "My son was suffering from a cough. So at that I time I wanted to come here, but I don’t know where the pharmacy is. From today — alone! — I can come here and buy medicine. It is a great opportunity. It is a great occasion for me." 

In Health & MedicineHealthGlobal Nation.

Tagged: North AmericaUnited Statesimmigrationhealth.