Annual symposium discusses refugee health

by Daniel Kim | 1/31/16 8:05pm

The free public symposium “A Place for the Displaced” — hosted by the Geisel School of Medicine chapter of Physicians for Human Rights, Nathan Smith Society and the Dartmouth Coalition for Global Health — focused on refugee health and other aspects of refugee life including settlement, mental health and education in light of the recent global refugee crisis.

Now in its fourth year, the program ran from Jan. 29 to 30 and consisted of a film screening, case study and talks from doctors, photographers, sociologists and other experts on refugee health.

Head organizer Vanessa Soetanto G’18, whose family sought asylum when they came to the United States from Indonesia in 1999, said that she drew this year’s theme from the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East.

“The refugee crisis in Syria and the Middle East was a good opportunity for us to shed light on refugee health as a whole,” she said. “In Manchester and Burlington, there are so many refugee communities from Bhutan and other places. The health implications and what it means to have to go through the legal system and be established is very specific, and I don’t think a lot of people know that.”

Soetanto said that the attendees consisted of a mix of community members, undergraduate students, medical school students and physicians.

“There’s been a really great turnout and I think the audience is really engaged in what the speakers have to say,” she said.

Geisel assistant professor of medicine and pediatric gastroenterology Amer Al-Nimr has been involved with refugee camps in Jordan for four years. He recently coordinated with the Jordanian Ministry of Health and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to establish a recurring gastrointestinal clinic. His Saturday talk examined the calculations a Jordanian refugee would make before deciding to leave their country.

“My thought process was trying to get some of the back and forth that might play out in their heads about the trade-off between the very basics of food and security with the greater human desire and need for growth, opportunity and a possible future,” he said.

Al-Nimr added that the symposium was an opportunity for attendees to gain a comprehensive view into the different aspects of refugee life and resettlement.

“There is a hunger for people to really learn what is going on,” he said. “There are many people who don’t know what various elements or providers, whether at Dartmouth College or the hospital, are doing. Such things make the community at large aware of what’s going on, but it brings the need to the forefront, and it is sort of a call to action so that we can double down our efforts and do more.”

During the case study portion of the symposium, participants were able to interact and come up with their own solutions.

“A lot of times, when you are being talked at, not a lot of it is being synthesized and you are not able to process the information,” Soetanto said. “So we really wanted our attendees to be able to use the information presented and talk about it amongst themselves.

Soetanto said that topics such as economics, government, human rights, health and engineering were covered in the case study portion of the symposium,

“At the end they’re going to present and collectively discuss those issues and people are going to be experts in those things,” she said. “It’s what they’re going to be going home with at the end of the day, instead of wondering what they just learned. The idea is to empower people and have them figure out what to do with it.”

One of the attendees, Simrun Bal G’19 said that the experience gave her greater insight into people’s lives outside of her social sphere.

“The person who gave the closing remarks was a refugee from Syria who worked for several years as a dentist, but who is now resettling in the Upper Valley,” she said. “It was eye-opening and tremendously moving.”

Another attendee, Irene Yuan G’19 said that the symposium was an opportunity for her to broaden her horizon.

“This really reminded us that everyone has their own story and every refugee comes with a different background,” she said.

Correction appended (Feb. 2, 2016):

The original version of this article incorrectly stated that head organizer Vanessa Soetanto G’18’s family sought asylum in the United States in 1989. Soetanto’s family sought asylum in 1999.