Running out of Time: Unaccompanied Refugee Minors and a Fight for Healthcare

Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong
June 29, 2015

Kathem was born in Iraq in 1995. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq and his family fled to Jordan, then Syria. In 2011, his family was forced to move again by the Arab Spring. Kathem and his family settled in San Jose, CA.

“Being a refugee is a surprise,” he says. “You don’t choose it. It’s just a must. And there’s no words that would describe being a refugee. And there’s no feelings [that] would describe it. I have no words. It was hard. It was harsh. My mother had PTSD, ADHD, and she had many other symptoms,” he says. “I had many problems. I couldn’t understand the culture, I didn’t understand the people, I didn’t understand the language, I had a lot of frustrations, in public and at home.”

Less than a year after they arrived, Kathem’s mother kicked him out of the house. Katham became a foster youth with the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors program, or URM. As an URM, Katham was entitled to Medi-Cal coverage until he was 26, but he lost his coverage with no explanation when he turned 18.

He went to Bay Area Legal Aid to figure out why he lost his insurance. They told him he was still eligible for Medi-Cal, and they successfully petitioned the state to get his coverage back. The Department of Health Care Services appealed the ruling in an attempt to overturn the judge’s decision.

“We noticed was that increasingly we were seeing the same clients over and over again with the same issues,” says Marina Pantchenko, an attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid. I represented a client that was a URM that ran away from home at the age of 12,” who was dropped by Medi-Cal in the middle of his treatment.

“These individuals face trauma in their home country,” she says. “In addition to not having a guardian or a parent to take care of them…Mental health services is absolutely critical. I really don’t know what internally is going on at these state agencies,” she says. “I think there’s a general confusion on an administrative level about where these youth are supposed to fit in.”

Pantchenko and Bay Area Legal Aid are suing California on the issue of providing adequate Medi-Cal coverage to refugees.

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Organizations mentioned/involved: Bay Area Legal Aid (BayLegal)
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