Refugee Agency and Mobile Health Solutions: The Story of Fatima Connect

April 05, 2022

Perspectives in Primary Care (formally the Primary Care Review) features perspectives from practitioners and students representing organizations, practices, and institutions across the country and around the world. All opinions expressed in this article are owned by the author(s).

Refugee, asylum-seeking, and migrant women often experience adverse reproductive health outcomes, and 60% of the world’s preventable maternal mortality deaths take place in settings of forced displacement and conflict. That’s why in December 2020, I founded Fatima Connect—a refugee health consulting and field implementation service, with the mission of improving health outcomes among displaced, vulnerable communities while encouraging participants to take agency over their individual health care experience, ultimately building on the causes I care about most: female refugee empowerment and health equity.

Fatima Connect integrates existing digital solutions to address the burden of health inequities among refugee populations. Our work is centered in the values of community-driven solutions, cultural sensitivity, and never assuming an individual’s needs. Named after my grandmother, Fatima Connect is rooted in ethics of love, compassion, and nurturing.

Fatima Connect’s pilot project with HERA Digital Health

We recently launched a pilot project in partnership with HERA Digital Health, a smartphone app that has served over 3,000 Syrian refugee mothers and children in Turkey. HERA’s main app features include the following:

  • Push reminders for timely prenatal care and child immunization appointments;
  • Electronic health records that are tracked and owned directly by the user;
  • A health and urgent care clinic location finder;
  • An emergency call feature;
  • Translated maternal and child health education; and
  • COVID-19 response information.

While HERA has proven successful in improving health care outcomes among Turkey’s Syrian refugee population, Fatima Connect is driving the development of a HERA userbase in the United States, starting in Nebraska.

So, why Nebraska?

In 2016, Nebraska had the nation’s highest per capita refugee resettlement rate. For over a decade, Nebraska has been a hub for refugees of diverse backgrounds, and its largest refugee populations are from Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, the Congo, and the Karen community. In September 2021, the Biden Plan approved for 775 Afghan refugees to resettle in Nebraska. Since then, that number has grown to over 1,000.

Since learning about the arrival of Afghans to the state, Fatima Connect initiated conversations with local and state representatives, nonprofit leaders, health professionals, and incoming refugees to better understand the health needs of the community. We conducted a needs assessment and gap analysis, then the HERA app presented itself as a compatible solution. We sought to hear directly from the Afghan refugees:

  • Would the HERA app solution be helpful in supporting your community’s needs?
  • If so, how can we best adapt the app features and the Fatima Connect training to meet those needs?

Throughout March 2022, Fatima Connect facilitated the field logistics and training among primarily Arabic-speaking, Somali, and Afghan mothers and primary caretakers. The training addressed the importance of engaging in preventive health care as well as taught users how to use the HERA app. Although the training was structured and supported by the Fatima Connect team, it also heavily engaged the various Omaha-based refugee nonprofit organizations’ community case managers. Future trainings will support additional languages.

Future plans for Fatima Connect

Fatima Connect’s services are adaptable to a wide diversity of contexts and needs. Wherever there is an unmet health care need, a mobile health solution likely already exists to support that need… and Fatima Connect works to connect that app to a user who can benefit. With Fatima Connect’s focus on refugees and displaced communities, the values of cultural sensitivity and trauma-informed care are critical.

It’s obvious that a digital health app is not a fix for all of an individual’s complex resettlement needs. Fatima Connect is not replacing the work of community-based organizations and other programmatic solutions but, rather, providing a supplementary resource to support the work they’re already doing. We look forward to expanding our work to additional states throughout the United States, as well as to partnering with other mobile health solutions to eventually take our work beyond U.S. borders. I’m also excited for opportunities to support communities closer to my roots in Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon.

The digital health industry is rapidly expanding and blossoming with opportunities to promote patient-centered care. There are many reasons why it’s difficult for refugee communities to have a consistent relationship with a local health provider, such as being vulnerable to frequent relocation, language barriers, or financial barriers. In this new age of innovative mobile health solutions, refugees should not be left out of the equation.

**Feature photo obtained with standard license on Shutterstock.


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Ayah Hamdan

Ayah Hamdan, BS, is a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Fellow and Master of Science (MS) candidate in Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She was born and raised in the Bay Area, California, and is the proud daughter of Palestinian immigrants. A monumental experience in her public health journey was during time spent in Ethiopia for the Harvard Multidisciplinary International Research Training (MIRT) Program where she researched the attitudes of early marriage among adolescent women. Ayah is the founder of public health venture, Fatima Connect, which facilitates culturally sensitive trainings, consultation, and field implementation services on the use of digital health apps among refugee and displaced populations. Outside of her academic pursuits, Ayah is brunching at her family's restaurants or spending time by the river.

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