Tens of millions of Americans are without healthcare, and among those millions stand undocumented immigrants, unable to receive any healthcare services. Any health issues among this community are often fought alone and with a lot of money. And often if one does seek out assistance, there is a language barrier and shame that prevents them from receiving the best care possible.
Germán Urrego knew this situation all too well, as he came from Colombia with his mother and spent fifteen years as an undocumented immigrant. Today, he is the creator of Unividoc, one of only three healthcare organizations in the entire country that focuses 100% on the Hispanic community, translating from Spanish to English.
“Every day I wake up thinking about my people, my community. The fact that I spent all this time undocumented [and how] I almost died […] my mantra is, I’m not a telemedicine company. I am a company into the business of providing peace of mind to my community at a moment of sickness. That’s what I do every day. That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. That’s why I’m doing Unividoc.”
The road to Unividoc was not easy, as he arrived shortly after 9/11 as a 16-year-old boy in a fearful country and unstable place. Like many before him, he and his mother worked survival jobs — anything to put food on the table and get an education. But another barrier stood in the way: he did not know how to speak any English. “When I finally went to college, I always recorded my classes and I went to the library and just translated them so I can understand them and be better in my classes. I graduated with honors from that college and I didn’t even know English.”
It took Germán 5 years and a huge push from his strict and loving mother to learn the language. Every day for a year, at 6 AM when the cafecito was being made and the birds began to sing, his mother would wake him up, put on a VHS tape and they’d learn English together. For 6 hours they’d study, practice vowels, perfect their amnbiture, and learn grammar to be able to communicate and thrive in this country. There were many jobs during this 5 year process that Germán struggled through, solely because of the language barrier. He was also stuck in the continuous cycle of looking for a new job every three months because “three months is what it took for immigration to get back with my information to [the agencies].”
Living life in three month intervals can make it difficult to dream or envision a way out. But not for Germán. Just as his mother pushed him to get an education and to learn English, she stoked his dreams and encouraged long-term goals. “She was always the one telling us ‘you have to do this because everything that you do now is preparing you for tomorrow. We came to America first to educate ourselves. Then we find a job.’”
Despite living as undocumented immigrant for 15 years, Germán believes it was the best thing to happen to him for it motivated him to find opportunities and make anything work despite his status. With a bachelor’s in politics and criminal justice and a master’s degree in public administration, he triumphed over adversity and all the obstacles the United States government puts in front of those arriving here.
The weight of the unknowns to immigrants can be overwhelming and isolating, paralyzing progress. He knows that not having command of the language can make people afraid to experiment and take risks. Germán coined a term that has lifted him out of those feelings and away from the hateful speech that so many in this country bring against immigrants: immigrande.
“An immigrande is someone who crosses a border and builds a country in the search of a better life.” He uses this term and calls his ability to motivate and move forward his “superpower.” His only fear lies in being afraid of doing something. So when Germán became documented 3 years ago and returned to Colombia for the first time since he left, he took this new man that he grew to be, full of adversity and struggles, optimism and success. “Everything and everyone was still the same, literally nothing changed. The only person that changed was me.”
He was still the light of room that everyone knew, the one who would get questions about why he was so happy or what his smile was about; and the answer was always just life. Just living was simply enough to make him smile. His drive to bring that joy to everyone is what made him open up his services ahead of schedule, to provide peace for those undocumented immigrants during a pandemic. “We weren’t ready but because of COVID-19, I said, you know what? What the hell? If someone is sick they need to do something and they don’t have that option if they’re undocumented. I don’t want anybody to experience what I experienced.”
Germán is an advocate of immigrants helping immigrants. “It is your duty, my duty, our responsibility to educate the people that come from other countries and the ones that are here that don’t speak English.” To him, his company is not about the money or where the market is trending, “I’d rather help first. And if they like something, there is more of a chance that they will come back because I’m doing this for them.”
Putting oneself before others and thinking of the collective is a trait of many cultures. So when immigrants come here, they’re bringing their best. They’re bringing their culture, their traditions, their love. For Germán, the best of Colombia is their happiness. “I didn’t know this about Colombia until I moved here and I started to realize […] my neighbors didn’t talk, nobody hugged […] that Colombians are the happiest people on earth.”
Thankfully Germán has found a group of about 30 friends he still keeps in touch with from his old days of riding bikes around and playing on the streets. “We have a WhatsApp group called “el mejor cuadra del mundo,’ or “the best block in the world.’ Because I only have beautiful memories while growing up there. So, for me, it is the best block in the whole wide world.”