March 13, 2023

A tiny ripple in the ocean of refugee needs

Minji Jo uses her vocational skills and training to help a refugee navigate cancer treatment

When Afghans flowed into San Diego in the fall of 2021, Minji Jo was first in line to help purchase household supplies and move families into apartments. She was drawn in by the immense needs and had an idea of the task it would be to help these families be successful in their new home. And she had the time.  

Initially, she didn’t see that time as a gift. After a long and distinguished career as a research scientist, Minji was laid off in 2018. What she thought would be just a bump in the road before the next job, turned into months and then years without a job offer. As a relatively new Christian, Minii says this valley stretched her faith. “I finally understood the phrase that Jesus is my salvation, my rock, and my savior,” she says. 

A breakthrough came when a friend’s husband was diagnosed with malignant brain cancer and Minji discovered a new calling—helping navigate the healthcare system and clinical trials. “I’m not a physician, but I could give them information in plain language so they can understand what’s going on with a limited amount of scientific background.” 

Following that experience, Minji launched a new business with hopes of helping others cope with cancer diagnoses. The flexibility of being self-employed offered time to serve. Without any business experience, she launched her new venture in 2020 with hopes of helping the many others trying to cope with cancer diagnoses. With the pandemic, though, it was a slow start, which opened this window of time to serve just as Afghan refugees were arriving. Then, this November, Hope for San Diego encountered a refugee who arrived with cancer and needed help. Minji was perfectly suited to help! 

Abd arrived in San Diego in April with his wife and seven kids, resettled here through a local agency. Only 45 years old, Abd had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at a refugee camp in Jordan after fleeing the violence of Afghanistan. Minji describes the intense surgery that was required to treat the cancer: “It needs a lot of care after surgery… it removes the gallbladder, part of the pancreas and a lot of the digestive system. In the refugee camp, he didn’t get the care that he needed for three years.”

Minji recognized how overwhelming it must be to navigate the U.S. healthcare system as a newly arrived refugee who didn’t speak English. “I mean, even you and I sometimes have a hard time navigating our health system, so I can’t imagine how hard it is for them.”

Even though he was reluctant to receive Minji’s help, Abd was desperate because of the severe abdominal pain and discouragement he was experiencing. They could only communicate through Google translate, but Minji began to build trust with Abd. He leaned on Minji to make appointments, attend meetings with doctors, and eventually find an oncologist who was able to take the extra time needed to care for this complicated patient. 

He doesn’t say much, Minji says, because of language and cultural barriers, but, “I know he feels cared for by the medical treatment he’s receiving.” After many weeks of Minji’s assistance, Abd acknowledged he would feel lost without her help. And the final victory came recently: “The last time I saw him, he actually smiled at me!”

Minji jokes, “Sometimes, I just wanna like take a nap or watch movies or something,” but says it’s always worth the emotional energy and time it takes to serve.  Minji still hopes her business will thrive, but thanks God for the gift of time.

She wishes she could do more to address the vast needs of refugees in San Diego, but Minji focuses on what God has put in front of her: “I can make a teeny, tiny ripple in this ocean, hoping that there’s going to be a big ripple effect.” And that’s an inspiring and meaningful use of her time.

With Minji’s help, Abd is cancer-free as of December 2022! He still needs the constant care of an oncologist, and Minji is still pursuing better treatment options, but she is already seeing the big ripples of healing and hope happening because of her care and attention.