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Philanthropy Makes a Difference in the Lives of Immigrants and Refugees

 4 min read
Exterior of Hansjörg Wyss Wellness Center

Marc Altshuler, MD, wants to make a difference for those seeking a better life in the United States. But he is keenly aware of the challenges and obstacles to care immigrants and refugees face.

“As a medical student here at Jefferson, I was very involved in JeffHope where I got to work with many of the vulnerable communities at homeless shelters throughout the city. As an attending physician, I learned about the immigrant community that was also struggling to access care in Philadelphia and I knew Jefferson could play a role,” says Altshuler, clinical leader of the Hansjörg Wyss Wellness Center, founding Director for Jefferson Center for Refugee and Immigrant Health, and Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Jefferson.

The Jefferson Center for Refugee Health was created in 2007 to deliver comprehensive primary care and ancillary services to newly arrived refugees, and quickly became the largest provider for refugee care in Philadelphia. Due to the increased need for services throughout the area, Altshuler worked with other academic medical centers in the area to set up additional clinical sites—all built on the original Jefferson model. In 2010, this was represented by the Philadelphia Refugee Health Collaborative.

The work received a tremendous boost in 2019, when the Wyss Foundation made a $3.1 million lead gift to establish a free-standing clinical center primarily for the immigrant and refugee communities in the heart of South Philadelphia.

The Wyss Wellness Center, which opened in 2021, provides primary care, social services, wellness activities, educational and community-focused programming, food distribution, legal services and much more with the goal of reducing health-related disparities for immigrants and refugees. Individuals are seen regardless of insurance or citizenship status.

Marc Altshuler and Jessica Deffler in front of the Wyss Center Marc Altshuler, MD, with Jessica Deffler, MD, medical director of the Hansjörg Wyss Wellness Center

Dr. Altshuler’s vision for the the Wyss Wellness Center was to bring healthcare to the community as a way to minimize some of the barriers that the immigrant and refugee populations are faced with every day. As an example, during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Center was one of the largest hubs in Philadelphia for the vaccine, providing about 7,000 shots to those communities in a nine-month span of time.

In early November 2023, the Office of Immigrant Affairs for the City of Philadelphia named the Wyss Wellness Center, in partnership with SEAMAAC (Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition) and Jefferson, as the 2023 Community Winner of the Health and Wellness Achievement Award for the Philadelphia Welcoming Awards.

In selecting the Wyss Wellness Center for the honor, the Office of Immigrant Affairs cited its “outstanding contributions and dedication to fostering a welcoming and inclusive community for Philadelphia’s immigrants,” and noted the inspiring work it does “to create a more just and equitable Philadelphia.”

Since opening its doors two years ago the Wyss Wellness Center has seen thousands of clients.

“We have become the largest healthcare provider for the Afghan refugee community who came here during Operation Allies Welcome... we’ve been taking care of many individuals who are coming on the buses from Texas... and we’ve been involved in providing care to the Ukrainian community,” he says. Altshuler and his team are currently working with colleagues to create additional healthcare-related services throughout Philadelphia in areas with large immigrant populations, including Northeast Philadelphia.

The Center for Refugee and Immigrant Health is designated by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as a Center of Excellence for Refugee Care. Altshuler says the goal is to become a federally qualified health center that will serve as a model for immigrant and refugee health centers throughout the region and the country. He and his colleagues are considered the leading authorities in the area, and are currently writing the guidelines for how to create similar centers across the U.S.

Altshuler credits the support of colleagues, Jefferson—and most importantly, the generous benefactors—with being able to make an impact.

“Without philanthropy, we would never have been able to open the (Wyss) Center, and we would not have the funding to sustain all the programs that we have on a daily basis,” he says. “For those who have already contributed, I want to say thank you on behalf of our staff and our clients. For many of these individuals, without having access to our services, they would not be getting any access to care at all.”

But, he says, there is much more work to do.

“Philadelphia is a welcoming city to so many and we’re going to continue to provide services to the larger immigrant communities that call Philadelphia their home. We’re hoping to continue to fundraise so that we can provide all the services that so many individuals desperately need.”

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