Seattle Organization Forges Strong Partnerships to Support Immigrants and Refugees

On January 21, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first documented case of COVID-19 in the United States in a suburban community outside of Seattle, Washington. Soon after, the region found itself at the center of an outbreak. During those terrifying early days of the pandemic, Congolese Integration Network (CIN), a Seattle non-profit led by and serving Congolese immigrants and refugees, did not close its doors.

“Here, we were open. We became like a food bank because everything was shut down in the beginning,” said Rose Atumba, who is both CIN health board program manager and a Congolese refugee who settled in the U.S. in 1999. “We have to come to help the people because they need help.”

Helping newly arrived community members manage the changing landscape of COVID-19 has been challenging for CIN. The virus exacerbated many of the healthcare struggles that the immigrant and refugee community were already facing, including language barriers and limited access to or experience with technology. Many Congolese immigrants and refugees have also been reluctant to get vaccinated due to misinformation about the safety of the vaccines.

As part of the Partnering for Vaccine Equity program, the CDC Foundation provided funding to CIN to increase vaccine education and confidence in their community. With this support, CIN focused on collaborating with local organizations, churches, county government and other service providers. To expand their reach, the CDC Foundation also helped connect CIN and the YMCA of Greater Seattle—one of over two dozen local YMCAs that received funding from our partner, the YMCA of the USA, to increase COVID-19 vaccine confidence in marginalized communities.

On February 26, 2022, the two organizations collaborated on a vaccine clinic tailored to meet the needs of the Congolese community. The event took place at the YMCA’s SeaTac location. Local pastor Derek Lane spoke to the largely Christian crowd to help dispel myths about COVID-19. Dr. Jean Jacques Kayembe Kashondo, MD, also led informational sessions about the vaccines in Swahili, Lingala and French, languages commonly spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“He speaks our languages, and he gave information about why people should get the vaccine,” Atumba said. “He is also from Congo, and he spoke about how, back home, we all get vaccines—and this vaccine went through all the same steps.”

CIN partnered with International Community Health Services who administered vaccines and boosters. An estimated 125 people from the community attended the event, and the CIN staff described the atmosphere as more like a party than a vaccine clinic.

“It was amazing because it had been a while since these people were together like that,” said Francoise Milinganyo, CIN health board supervisor. “Although we were saying, no more than 30 people in the room, the county had a hard time keeping people from coming in!”

When asked if they would consider partnering with the YMCA of Greater Seattle for future events, the answer from the Congolese Integration Network was a resounding yes.

“To build the health of a community, you need good partners,” Milinganyo said. “You cannot do it by yourself.”

The YMCA of Greater Seattle feels much the same way.

“COVID has highlighted a lot of issues, and tomorrow it might be something else,” said Rahel Schwartz, MPH, program executive for health equity at the YMCA of Greater Seattle. “So, continuing to work with other community-based organizations is critical to address public health issues ... and to create a space where we are saving lives, but at the same time we're having fun.”

This effort is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $20,007,444 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government.

Ruth O'Neill headshot
Ruth O’Neill is a senior communications officer for the CDC Foundation’s department of infectious disease programs.